Chapter no 20

House of Sky and Breath

The water dripping from Tharion’s wave skimmer onto the plastic floor of the dry dock in the Blue Court was the only sound as he repaired the vehicle. His sweat dripped along with it, despite the chamber’s cool temperature. He’d stripped off his shirt within minutes of arriving here, even its soft cotton too confining against his skin as he worked. Reeds had gotten stuck in the engine during his trip out to the marshes the other day, and though the engineering team could have easily fixed the issue, he’d wanted to do it himself.

Wanted to give his mind some time to sort everything out.

When he’d awoken that morning, talking to the Prince of the Chasm— pretending to be a cat, for Urd’s sake—hadn’t been remotely near the list of possibilities for his day. Nor had finding out that an Avallen prince was an Ophion rebel searching for Sofie Renast’s younger brother. Or that Danika Fendyr had sent Sofie to gather some vital intel on the Asteri. No, he’d awoken with only one goal: learn what Ithan Holstrom knew.

A whole lot of nothing, apparently.

Some Captain of Intelligence. Captain Whatever, Holstrom had called him. Tharion was half-inclined to get it etched into a plaque for his desk.

But at least Holstrom had agreed to help out should Tharion need his nose to find the kid. If Pippa Spetsos was hunting for Emile as Cormac had claimed, politics and Sofie and his queen aside … they needed to find the kid first. If only to spare him from being forced to use those thunderbird powers in horrible ways. Holstrom would be a valuable asset in that endeavor.

And besides—the wolf seemed like he needed something to do.

The door to the dry dock room whooshed open, ushering in a scent of bubbling streams and water lilies. Tharion kept his attention on the engine, the wrench clenched in his hand.

“I heard you were here,” said a lilting female voice, and Tharion plastered a smile on his face as he looked over a shoulder at the River Queen’s daughter.

She wore her usual diaphanous pale blue gown, offsetting the warm brown of her skin. River pearls and shards of abalone gleamed in her thick black curls, cascading well past her slim shoulders to the small of her back. She glided toward him on bare feet, the chill water coating the floor seemingly not bothering her at all. She always moved like that: as if she were floating underwater. She had no mer form—was only a fraction mer, actually. She was some kind of elemental humanoid, as at home in the open air as she was beneath the surface. Part woman, part river.

Tharion held up his wrench, a strip of river weed tangled around the tip. “Repairs.”

“Why do you still insist on doing them yourself?”

“Gives me a tangible task.” He leaned against the wave skimmer on the lift behind him, the water beading its sides cool against his hot skin.

“Is your work for my mother so unfulfilling that you need such things?”

Tharion offered a charming smile. “I like to pretend I know what I’m doing around machines,” he deflected.

She gave him a light laugh in return, coming closer. Tharion kept himself perfectly still, refusing to shy from the hand she laid on his bare chest. “I haven’t seen much of you lately.”

“Your mother’s been keeping me busy.” Take it up with her.

A small, shy smile. “I’d hoped we could …” She blushed, and Tharion caught the meaning.

They hadn’t done that in years. Why now? Water-spirits were capricious—he’d figured she’d gotten him, had him, lost interest, and moved on. Even if the vows between them still bound them together irreparably.

Tharion covered her small hand with his own, brushing his thumb over the velvety skin. “It’s late, and I have an early start.”

“And yet you’re here, toiling on this … machine.” She took after her mother when it came to technology. Had barely mastered the concept of a computer, despite lessons with Tharion. He wondered if she even knew the name for the machine behind him.

“I need it for tomorrow’s work.” A lie. “More than you need me?”

Yes. Definitely yes.

But Tharion gave another one of those grins. “Another time, I promise.” “I heard you went into the city today.”

“I’m always in the city.”

She eyed him, and he noted the jealous, wary gleam. “Who did you see?”

“Some friends.” “Which ones?”

How many interrogations had begun like this and ended in her crying to her mother? The last one had been only a few days ago. Afterward, he’d wound up on that boat in the Haldren Sea, hunting for Sofie Renast’s remains.

He said carefully, “Bryce Quinlan, Ruhn Danaan, Ithan Holstrom, and Hunt Athalar.” No need to mention Aidas or Prince Cormac. They weren’t his friends.

“Bryce Quinlan—the girl from this spring? With the star?”

He wasn’t surprised she only asked about the female. “Yeah.” Another wary look that Tharion pretended not to notice as he said casually, “She and Athalar are dating now, you know. A nice ending after everything that went down.”

The River Queen’s daughter relaxed visibly, shoulders slumping. “How sweet.”

“I’d like to introduce you sometime.” A blatant lie. “I shall ask Mother.”

He said, “I’m going to see them again tomorrow. You could join me.” It was reckless, but … he’d spent ten years now avoiding her, dodging the truth. Maybe they could change it up a bit.

“Oh, Mother will need more time than that to prepare.”

He bowed his head, the picture of understanding. “Just let me know when. It’ll be a double date.”

“What’s that?”

Television didn’t exist down here. Or at least in the River Queen’s royal chambers. So popular culture, anything modern … they weren’t even on her radar.

Not that theirs could be considered a true betrothal. It was more like indentured servitude.

“Two couples going out to a meal together. You know, a date … times two.”

“Ah.” A pretty smile. “I’d like that.”

So would Athalar. Tharion would never hear the end of it. He glanced at the clock. “I do have an early start, and this engine is a mess …”

It was as close to a dismissal as he’d ever dare make. He did have a few rights: she could seek him out for sex—as she’d done—but he could say no without repercussions; and his duties as Captain of Intelligence were more important than seeing to her needs. He prayed she’d consider fixing a wave skimmer one of those duties.

Ogenas be thanked, she did. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

And then she was gone, the scent of water lilies with her. As the doors slid open to let her through, Tharion glimpsed her four mer guards waiting on the other side—the River Queen’s daughter never went anywhere alone. The broad-chested males would have fought to the death for the chance to share her bed. He knew they detested him for having and rejecting that access.

He’d happily yield his position. If only the River Queen would let him.

Alone again, Tharion sighed, leaning his forehead against the wave skimmer.

He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. It could be weeks or years until she and her mother would start pushing for the wedding. And then for children. And he’d be locked in a cage, here below the surface, until even his Vanir life expired. Old and dreamless and forgotten.

A fate worse than death.

But if this thing with Sofie and Emile Renast was indeed playing out in a big way … he’d use it as his temporary escape. He didn’t give a shit about the rebellion, not really. But his queen had given him a task, so he’d milk this investigation for all it was worth. Perhaps see what the intel Sofie had gathered could gain him.

Until his own stupid choices finally called in a debt.

“And here’s the common room,” Hunt said through his teeth to Baxian as he shouldered open the door to the barracks hangout area. “As you already know.”

“Always nice to hear from a local,” Baxian said, black wings folded in tightly as he noted the dim space: the little kitchenette to the left of the door, the sagging chairs and couches before the large TV, the door to the bathrooms straight ahead. “This is only for triarii?”

“All yours tonight,” Hunt said, checking his phone. After ten. He’d been on his way out at seven when Celestina had called, asking him to give Baxian a tour of the Comitium. Considering the sheer size of the place … it had taken this long. Especially because Baxian had oh-so-many questions.

The bastard knew he was keeping Hunt here. Away from Bryce and that sweet, sumptuous mouth. Which was precisely why Hunt had opted to grin and bear it: he wouldn’t give the shithead the satisfaction of knowing how much he was pissing him off. Or turning his balls blue.

But enough was enough. Hunt asked, “You need me to tuck you into bed, too?”

Baxian snorted, going up to the fridge and yanking it open. The light bounced off his wings, silvering their arches. “You guys have crap beer.”

“Government salary,” Hunt said, leaning against the doorway. “Menus for takeout are in the top drawer to your right; or you can call down to the canteen and see if they’re still serving. Good? Great. Bye.”

“What’s that?” Baxian asked, and there was enough curiosity in his tone that Hunt didn’t bite his head off. He followed the direction of the Helhound’s gaze.

“Um. That’s a TV. We watch stuff on it.”

Baxian threw him a withering glare. “I know what a TV is, Athalar. I meant those wires and boxes beneath.”

Hunt arched a brow. “That’s an OptiCube.” Baxian stared at him blankly. Hunt tried again. “Gaming system?” The Helhound shook his head. For a moment, Hunt was standing in Baxian’s place, assessing the same room, the same strange, new tech, Isaiah and Justinian explaining what a

fucking mobile phone was. Hunt said roughly, “You play games on it. Racing games, first-person games … giant time suck, but fun.”

Baxian looked like the word—fun—was foreign to him, too. Solas.

Sandriel hated technology. Had refused to allow even televisions in her palace. Baxian might as well have been transported here from three centuries ago. Hunt himself had encountered tech in other parts of the world, but when most of his duties had kept him focused on Sandriel or her missions, he hadn’t really had time to learn about everyday shit.

From the hallway behind him, low voices murmured. Naomi—and Pollux. Isaiah’s soothing tones wove between them. Thank the gods.

Hunt found Baxian observing him warily. He threw a flat stare back, one he’d perfected as the Umbra Mortis. Baxian just aimed for the hallway. Hunt gave him a wide berth.

The Hammer filled the doorway of Vik’s room, talking to Isaiah and Naomi in the hall. It was Pollux’s room now. Hunt’s magic rumbled, lightning on the horizon. Pollux sneered at Hunt as he stalked past. Bags and boxes were piled high behind him, a miniature city dedicated to the Hammer’s vanity.

Hunt, keenly aware of all the cameras, of Bryce’s plea to behave, continued on, nodding at Naomi and Isaiah as he passed.

“Well, here you go,” Hunt said to Baxian, pausing before Justinian’s old room. Baxian opened the door. The room was as bare and empty as Hunt’s had been.

A duffel lay beside the narrow bed. All of Baxian’s belongings fit in one fucking bag.

It didn’t make a difference. The Helhound was an asshole who had done shit that even Hunt couldn’t stomach. For him to be in Justinian’s room, filling his place—

The crucifix in the lobby flashed in Hunt’s mind, Justinian’s agonized face as he hung on it. Hunt tried to banish the thought, but failed. He’d fucked up. Twice now, he’d fucked up. First with the Fallen rebellion, then this spring with the Viper Queen, and now … Was he really going to allow himself and Bryce to be dragged into something similar? How many people would be destroyed by the end?

Baxian said, stepping into his room, “Thanks for the tour, Athalar.”

Hunt again glimpsed that sad, empty little room behind the Helhound. Perhaps something like pity stirred him, because he said, “I’ll give you a lesson on video games tomorrow. I gotta get home.”

He could have sworn a shadow dimmed in Baxian’s eyes that appeared a Hel of a lot like longing. “Thanks.”

Hunt grunted. “We’ll link up after the morning check-in. You can shadow me for the day.”

“Real generous of you,” Baxian said, and shut the door without further reply.

Fortunately, Pollux shut his own door right then—slammed it in Naomi’s face. Leaving Hunt with his two friends.

They headed for the common room without needing to say a word, waiting until they’d closed the door and ensured no one was in the bathroom before sinking onto the couch. Hunt really wanted to go home, but … “So this fucking sucks,” he said quietly.

“Pollux should be drawn and quartered,” Naomi spat.

“I’m amazed you’re both still alive,” Isaiah said to her, propping his feet on the coffee table and loosening the gray tie around his neck. Judging by the suit, he must have recently gotten in from escorting Celestina somewhere. “But as your commander, I’m grateful you didn’t brawl.” He gave Hunt a pointed look.

Hunt snorted. But Naomi said, “The two of them defile those rooms by staying in there.”

“They’re only rooms,” Isaiah said, though pain tightened his face. “All that Vik and Justinian were … it’s not in there.”

“Yeah, it’s in a box at the bottom of a trench,” Naomi said, crossing her arms. “And Justinian’s ashes are on the wind.”

“So are Micah’s,” Hunt said softly, and they looked at him. Hunt just shrugged.

“Were you really going to rebel this spring?” Naomi asked. They hadn’t once spoken about it these past months. The shit that had gone down.

“Not by the end,” Hunt said. “I meant everything I said on the boat. I changed my mind; I realized that wasn’t the path for me.” He met Isaiah’s disapproving frown. “I still mean it.”

He did. If Sofie and Emile and Ophion and Cormac and all that shit went away right now, he wouldn’t fucking think twice about it. Would be

glad for it.

But that wasn’t how things were playing out. It wasn’t how Bryce wanted it to play out. He could barely stand the sight of Isaiah’s tattooed brow.

“I know,” Isaiah said at last. “You’ve got a lot more on the line now,” he added, and Hunt wondered if he’d intended the slight tone of warning in the words.

Wondered if Isaiah remembered how he and the other angels in the Summit conference room had bowed to him after he’d ripped off Sandriel’s head. What would his friends do if he told them about his recent contact with an Ophion rebel? His head spun.

Hunt changed the subject, nodding to the hall behind the shut door. “You two going to stay here or find places of your own?”

“Oh, I’m out,” Isaiah said, practically beaming. “Signed a lease this morning on a place a few blocks from here. CBD, but closer to the Old Square.”

“Nice,” Hunt said, and lifted a brow at Naomi, who shook her head.

“Free rent,” she said, “despite the new hallmates.” Pollux and Baxian would be staying here until Celestina deemed them well adjusted enough to live in the city proper. Hunt shuddered to think of them loose.

“Do you trust that they’re going to behave?” he asked Isaiah. “Because I fucking don’t.”

“We don’t have any choice but to trust that they will,” Isaiah said, sighing. “And hope that the Governor will see them for what they are.”

“Will it make any difference if she knows?” Naomi asked, tucking her hands behind her head.

“I guess we’ll see,” Hunt said, and glanced at his phone again. “All right. I’m out.” He paused at the doorway, however. Looked at his two friends, wholly unaware of the shit that was coming their way. It’d be huge for either of them—potentially freeing for Isaiah—to bust Ophion. To capture Sofie Renast and her brother and haul in Cormac.

If he spoke up now, spilled his guts, could he spare Bryce from the worst of it? Could he avoid crucifixion—avoid having an empty room being all that was left of him one day, too? If he played it right, could he save them both—and maybe Ruhn and Ithan—and live to tell the tale? Tharion

was likely dead fucking meat for not telling the authorities about his mission, queen or no, as was the Crown Prince of Avallen. But …

Isaiah asked, “Something on your mind?” Hunt cleared his throat.

The words sizzled on his tongue. A parachute, and now would be the exact moment to pull it open. We have a major problem with rebels converging on this city and I need your help to make sure they play right into our hands.

Hunt cleared his throat again. Shook his head. And left.

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