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Chapter no 4

House of Sky and Breath

“Oh, come on,” Bryce hissed at the glowing scar between her breasts. Or what she could glimpse of it with the neckline of her T-shirt and her bra in the way. It lit up the fabric of both, and if she hadn’t been facing the towering Fae male who’d appeared out of a cloud of shadows, she might have used the moment to ponder why and how it glowed.

Partygoers had stopped dead in their revelry. Waiting for whatever shit was about to go down.

And what asshole had turned off the music? Dramahounds.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Ruhn prowled closer to the stranger.

The male’s tan face might have been ruggedly good-looking were it not for the complete lack of feeling there. His light brown eyes were dead. Humorless. His thin white sweater over black jeans and combat boots told Bryce he’d come from somewhere colder.

The crowd seemed to sense danger, too, and backed away until only Hunt, Bryce, Ruhn, and his friends remained facing the stranger. She had no idea where Fury and Juniper were. The former was likely strategically positioned in the room to make sure she could intercept any danger before it reached her girlfriend. Good.

The stranger stalked forward, and Bryce braced herself, even as Hunt casually angled himself between her and the male. Bryce held in her grin at the gesture. And found that grin vanishing instantly when the blond spoke, his accent rolling and rich.

“I was invited.”

The stranger turned to her and smirked, lifeless as a dead fish. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” A nod toward her—her chest. “Though I know who you are, of course.” His eyes flicked over her. “You look better than expected. Not that I was expecting much.”

“What the fuck are you doing here, Cormac?” Ruhn ground out, stepping closer. But he sheathed the Starsword down his back once more.

The blond—Cormac—faced her brother. He sniffed once, then chuckled. “You smell like cunt.”

Bryce nearly gagged at the thought. Cormac went on as Ruhn bristled, “And I told you: I was invited.”

“Not to this fucking house,” Flynn said, moving to Ruhn’s side, Declan flanking his other. A lethal unit.

Cormac assessed his surroundings. “You call this a house? I hadn’t realized your standards had dropped so low, Lord Hawthorne.”

Declan snarled. “Fuck off, Cormac.” Marc came up behind him, teeth bared with silent menace.

Any other opponent, Bryce knew the group would likely obliterate, but this male was Avallen Fae: powerful, trained in combat from a young age, and merciless.

The male said, as if seeing her try to puzzle him out, “I’m your cousin, Bryce.”

Hunt—the fucking bastard—snorted.

“I don’t have any Fae cousins.” Bryce snapped. If only the stupid scar would halt its glowing. If only people would go back to partying.

“That light says otherwise,” Cormac said with blatant confidence. “I might be Ruhn’s cousin directly through his mother’s kin, but your father, King Einar, is Fae, and his line once crossed with ours long ago.” He held up his hand, and flame wreathed his fingers before winking out.

Bryce blinked. Her mother had never once spoken the Autumn King’s name, and Bryce had only learned it through the news when she was old enough to use a computer.

“Why are you here?” Ruhn bit out.

From the corner of her vision lightning sizzled at Hunt’s fingertips. One strike, and Hunt could fry this fucker.

Yet Cormac smiled. His dead eyes gleamed with nothing but contempt as he bowed mockingly to Bryce. “I’m here to meet my bride.”

The words shot through Hunt’s mind fast enough that they doused his lightning, but Bryce tipped her head back and laughed.

No one else joined her.

And when Bryce had finished, she smirked at Cormac. “You’re hilarious.”

“It is no joke,” Cormac said, face darkening. “It’s been decreed.” “By who?” Hunt snapped.

The Avallen male sized up Hunt with palpable disdain. Not someone used to being questioned, then. Spoiled little prick. “By her sire, the Autumn King, and mine, the High King of the Avallen Fae.” Making this shithead a Crown Prince.

Bryce said coolly, “Last I checked, I wasn’t on the market.”

Hunt crossed his arms, becoming a wall of muscle beside her. Let Cormac see precisely who he’d be tangling with if he took another step closer to Bryce. Hunt willed tendrils of his lightning to crackle along his shoulders, his wings.

“You’re an unwed Fae female,” Cormac said, unmoved. “That means you belong to your male kin until they decide to pass you to another. The decision has been made.”

From the living room archway, a delicate, dark figure emerged. Axtar. She palmed a gun, but kept it at her thigh. No sign of Juniper—presumably, the faun was staying wherever Fury had instructed her to hide.

Cormac glanced toward the merc, and even his sneer faltered.

Every power broker on Midgard knew of Fury Axtar. What she was capable of, if provoked.

Ruhn pointed to the door and snarled at Cormac, “Get the fuck out of my house. I don’t care if you use your shadows or your own feet, but get out.”

Yet Cormac glowered at the Starsword peeking over Ruhn’s broad shoulder. “Rumor has it that the sword sings for my bride, too.”

A muscle feathered in Ruhn’s jaw. Hunt didn’t know what to make of that.

But Bryce stepped forward, star still blazing. “I’m not your bride, asshole. And I’m not going to be, so scuttle back to whatever hole you crawled out of and tell your kings to find someone else. And tell them—”

“You’ve got a mouth on you,” Cormac murmured.

Hunt didn’t particularly like the male’s appreciative tone. But he kept his power reined in. Even a zap of lightning against Cormac could be seen as a declaration of war.

Fae were highly sensitive babies. Their tantrums could last centuries.

Bryce smiled sweetly at Cormac. “I get that you want to play Broody Prince, but don’t ever fucking interrupt me again.”

Cormac started. Hunt hid his smirk, even as his blood heated at Bryce’s irreverence.

Bryce went on, “My brother told you to leave his house.” Her skin began to glow. “You don’t want me to have to ask you.”

The hair on Hunt’s neck rose. She’d blinded people with that power— and that had been before the Drop. With all that magic backing her starlight

… He hadn’t yet seen how it would manifest. Half hoped he’d find out now, with this asshole as a test subject.

Hunt eyed Flynn, Declan, and Marc—all of whom were tense and primed to leap into the fray. And Ruhn …

Hunt didn’t know why Ruhn’s apparent satisfaction surprised him. He’d expected wounded male pride, perhaps, at Bryce showing him up in his own home. Yet pride did shine from Ruhn’s face—for Bryce. Like the prince had been waiting for his sister to step into her power for a while now and he was honored to have her at his side.

Hunt’s attention shot back to Cormac as the Avallen Prince held up his hands and slowly smiled at Bryce. The expression was as dead as his eyes. “I’ve seen all I needed to.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Ruhn demanded. Shadows rippled from his shoulders, a dark contrast to the light emanating from Bryce.

But shadows also swirled behind Cormac—darker, wilder than Ruhn’s, like a stampede of stallions waiting to gallop over all of them. “I wanted to confirm that she has the gift. Thank you for demonstrating.” He set one foot into those untamed shadows. Bowed his head to Bryce. “I’ll see you at the altar.”

Bryce’s star winked out the moment he vanished, leaving only drifting embers behind.

Bryce was dimly aware of the party ending: people filtering out through the front door, the countless eyes on her as she stood in the foyer, typing into her phone.

“There’s a train at seven tomorrow morning,” Bryce announced to Hunt, who lingered at her side. As if afraid the Avallen male would reappear to snatch her away.

Not just any Avallen male: Prince Cormac. Her … fiancé.

“There’s no way your mom will go,” Hunt said. “If by some miracle she isn’t suspicious that you’re bumping them onto a train five hours earlier, then Randall will be.”

Juniper scrolled on her phone at Bryce’s other side. “Social channels are empty right now, but …”

“All it takes is one person,” Fury finished from where she monitored the front of the house with the same vigilance as Hunt. “I think I made my point clear about the consequences of that, though.”

Gods bless her, Fury really had. If any of you post, talk, or so much as think about what went down here tonight, she’d declared with quiet authority to the awed partygoers, I’ll hunt you down and make you regret it.

No one had said anything, but Bryce had noticed more than a few people deleting pictures from their phones as they hurried out.

Hunt said, “Getting your parents out of the city without them being suspicious or finding out will be tricky, to say the least.” He angled his head. “You sure it’s not easier to tell them?”

“And risk my mom going ballistic? Doing something reckless?” And that was to say nothing about what Randall might do if he thought the Autumn King was threatening Bryce’s happiness and control over her own life. Whatever her mom left of the Autumn King, Randall would be sure to put a bullet in it. “I’m not risking them like that.”

“They’re adults,” Fury said. “You can trust them to make rational choices.”

“Have you met my mom?” Bryce burst out. “Does rational ever spring to mind when you think about her? She makes sculptures of babies in beds of lettuce, for fuck’s sake.”

“I just think,” June jumped in, “that they’re going to find out anyway, so maybe it’s better if it comes from you. Before they hear it from someone else.”

Bryce shook her head. “Nope. I want to be far, far away when they find out. And get a few hundred miles between them and the Autumn King, too.”

Hunt grunted his agreement, and she threw him a grateful nod.

The sound of Declan shutting the front door pulled her attention from the angel as the Fae male leaned back against it. “Well, my buzz is officially ruined.”

Flynn slumped onto the lowest steps of the staircase, a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “Then we better start getting it back.” He swigged deeply before passing it up to Ruhn, who leaned against the banister with crossed arms, his blue eyes blazing into a near-violet. He’d been quiet these last few minutes.

Bryce had no idea where to start with him. About Cormac, about the power she’d shown in Ruhn’s own house, about the star glowing for the Avallen Prince … any of it. So she said, “I take it that’s the cousin from your Ordeal.”

Ruhn, Dec, and Flynn nodded gravely. Her brother drank from the bottle of whiskey.

“How close did Cormac get to killing you during your Ordeal?” Hunt asked. Ruhn must have told him about it at some point this summer.

“Close,” Flynn said, earning a glare from Ruhn.

But Ruhn admitted, “It was bad.” Bryce could have sworn he didn’t look at her as he added, “Cormac spent his whole life thinking he’d get the Starsword one day. That he’d go into the Cave of Princes and be proven worthy. He studied all the lore, learned all the lineage, pored over every account detailing the variations in the power. It, ah … didn’t go down well when I got it instead.”

“And now his fiancée has a claim to it, also,” Flynn said, and it was Bryce’s turn to glare at the lord. She could have lived without anyone bringing that up again.

Ruhn seemed to force himself to look at Bryce as he said, “It’s true.” So he’d seen her glare, then. “The sword’s as much yours as it is mine.”

Bryce waved a hand. “I’ll take it on weekends and holidays, don’t worry.”

Hunt tossed in, “And it’ll get two Winter Solstices, so … double the presents.”

Ruhn and the others gawked at them like they had ten heads, but Bryce grinned at Hunt. He returned it with one of his own.

He got her—her humor, her fears, her hedging. Whatever it was, Athalar got her.

“Is it true?” Juniper looped her elbow through Bryce’s and pressed close. “About the legality of an engagement against Bryce’s will?”

That wiped the smile from Hunt’s face. And Bryce’s. Her mind raced, each thought as swift and dizzying as a shooting star.

“Tell me there’s a way out of this, Ruhn.” She walked to her brother and snatched the whiskey bottle from him. A faint light flared at his back—the Starsword. It hummed, a whining sound like a finger tracing the rim of a glass.

Ruhn’s stare met hers, questioning and wary, but Bryce stepped back.

The sword stopped singing.

It’s not going to bite, you know.

Bryce nearly flinched as her brother’s voice filled her mind. He used the mind-speaking rarely enough that she often entirely forgot he had the gift.

It’s your sword. Not mine. You’re as much a Starborn Prince as I am a princess.

He shot back, eyes glinting with stars, I’m not the kind of male whose sense of pride is so brittle that I need to cling to a shiny weapon. If you want to use it, it’s yours.

She shook her head. You retrieved the blade—and apparently had to deal with Cormac while doing it. That fact alone entitles you to keep it.

Ruhn’s laughter filled her mind, full of amusement and relief. But his face remained serious as he said to the group, now staring at them, “I didn’t pay attention in class when we covered Fae law. Sorry.”

“Well, I did,” Marc said. “And I’ve already put some of my firm’s associates on researching it. Any legal case or precedent that’s been uploaded into a database, short of whatever’s hidden in the Asteri Archives, we’ll be able to comb through.”

Declan added, “I’ll go hunting, too.” But even Dec, with his hacking skills, couldn’t pierce the security around the private, ancient files of the Asteri.

“Thank you,” Bryce said, but she didn’t allow that shred of hope to balloon in her chest. “Update me when you have anything.”

Ruhn started talking, but Bryce tuned him out, handing off the bottle of whiskey to Juniper before slipping out onto the sagging front porch, dodging discarded cups and cans. Hunt was a storm wind at her back as she strode onto the small slice of grassy front lawn and breathed in the bustle of the Old Square before her.

“Why are you being so calm about this?” Hunt asked, his arms crossed.

The dry, warm night breeze ruffled his hair, his gray wings.

“Because this is some move in a game the Autumn King is playing,” Bryce said. “He’s anticipating that I’m going to run to his house and fight him. I’m trying to figure out why that would help him. What his endgame is.”

And what her own might be.

“Connecting the two most powerful Fae royal bloodlines is a pretty clear endgame,” Hunt growled. “And you’re Starborn on top of it—you told me you’ve got the gifts of one of the first of the Starborn. And you’ve got the Horn. That makes you a massive bargaining chip for more power.”

“That’s too simple for the Autumn King. His games play out over years

—centuries. This engagement is the first step. Or maybe we’re already several steps along.” She just needed to find some way to get a few steps ahead of that without revealing her hand. The engagement would have to stand. For now.

“It’s bullshit.”

Bryce steeled her spine. “I was really enjoying this summer, you know.

Today seems Hel-bent on ruining it for both of us.”

Hunt ducked his head. “You’d almost think this was planned by the gods. They probably have a special task force: How to Fuck Over Bryce and Hunt in One Day.”

Bryce chuckled. “Celestina might wind up being a blessing. But …” She asked Hunt, “You think the Autumn King might have timed this to coincide with you getting the news about Celestina?”

“To what end?”

“To rattle us. To make us act, I don’t know.” She dared say, “Maybe he thought you’d go after him, and it’d make you look bad in front of the new Archangel.”

Hunt stilled, and Bryce became keenly aware of the distance between their bodies. “Again,” he said, voice husky, “to what end?”

“If you did something illegal,” Bryce mused, heart beginning to thunder as he stepped closer, “like …”

“Kill a Crown Prince of the Fae?”

Bryce chewed on her lip. “Celestina needs to set an example of how she plans to rule. And punishing a powerful angel, a notorious angel acting out of line … that’d be the perfect way to demonstrate her power. And thus get you out of the picture for the Autumn King. He knows we’re a team.”

“A team,” Hunt said slowly. As if, out of everything she’d laid out, that

was what he chose to dwell on.

“You know what I mean,” Bryce said.

“I’m not sure I do.” Had his voice dropped lower?

“We’re roomies,” she said, her own voice getting breathy. “Roomies.”

“Occasional Beer Pong Champions?”

Hunt snatched the hat off her head and plunked it back on his own, backward as usual. “Yes, the Autumn King truly fears our unholy beer pong alliance.”

Bryce smiled, letting it chase away the darkness lurking in her soul. But Hunt added, “We can’t forget that Avallen has their own angle. Why’d they agree to the union?”

“You know what?” Bryce said. “Who cares about any of them? My father, the Avallen Fae—screw them.” Only with Hunt could she be dismissive about this. He’d have her back, no matter what. “At least until we get my parents onto that train.”

“You still haven’t given me a convincing plan for how that will happen.

For all we know, they’re learning about this on the news.”

“Oh, my phone would already be exploding if my mother had heard.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe I should ask Fury to sneak into their hotel and disable their phones.”

“Is it bad if I think she should go one step further and tie them up, throw them in the trunk of a car, and drive them home so they get there before the news breaks? Because that’s what Fury will likely do if you send her to that hotel.”

Bryce laughed, and the sound sang through her like silver bells. “Okay, no Fury.” She looped her arm through Hunt’s, savoring the muscled mass of him as she steered them toward the low gate and sidewalk beyond. “Let’s watch old episodes of Beach House Hookup and come up with ways to trick my parents.”

One of his wings brushed along her back in the softest of caresses. Every inch it touched lit up like firstlight. “Sounds like a normal Tuesday night.”

They meandered home, and despite Bryce’s flippant words, she found herself slipping into a state of roiling darkness and thoughts like shooting stars. She’d been a fool to think she could lie low forever. She’d been willing to follow the Asteri’s order to lead a boring, normal life, but the rest of the world had different plans for her. And Hunt.

She was bringing her phone to her ear to call her parents with the news that Oh, so sad, but Jesiba needs me to head over to her warehouse tomorrow and I think this might lead to a second chance at a job with her, so do you mind getting on the earlier train? when she and Hunt walked off the elevator and found the door to their apartment ajar.

If her mom and Randall had come over unexpectedly …

Syrinx was barking inside, and Bryce lunged for the door, the memory of another night washing red over her senses. Now, as then, the scent of blood was a coppery tang in the air, in the hallway, on the threshold of her door—

Not again. Not her parents—

Hunt shoved her back as he angled himself at the doorway, gun out and lightning wreathing his other hand, violence written in every taut line of his body, his raised wings.

Surprise flared in his dark eyes, and then he lowered the gun. Bryce beheld what was in the center of the great room and swayed into Hunt with relief and shock.

Yes, the gods had clearly formed a How to Fuck Over Hunt and Bryce task force.

Inside lay Ithan Holstrom, bleeding all over her pale wood floors.

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