“Today’s the big day, huh?”
Hunt turned from where he’d been staring at the coffee machine, willing the grinding of the beans to drown out the thoughts roaring in his head. Bryce leaned against the white marble counter behind him, clad in leggings and an old T-shirt.
Hunt tucked in his gray wings and saluted. “Approachable Asshole, reporting for duty.” Her lips curved upward, but he asked, “How’d it go with your parents?” She’d left well before he was up.
“Perfectly.” She feigned brushing dirt off her shoulders. “Not a whisper about the engagement. I think Randall suspected something, but he was game to play along.”
“Five gold marks says your mom calls before noon to start yelling.”
Her grin was brighter than the morning sun streaming outside the windows. “You’re on.” She angled her head, surveying his daily uniform: his usual black battle-suit for the 33rd. “You should see the decorations that went up overnight—apparently, the city’s rolling out the welcome mat, and sparing no expense. Banners, flowers, sparkly-clean streets, even in the Old Square. Not one drop of drunken-idiot vomit to be seen or smelled.”
“The appointment of a new Governor is a pretty big deal,” he said, wondering where she was going with this.
“Yep.” Then Bryce asked casually, “Want me to come with you today?” There it was. Something in his chest kindled at the offer. “No hand-
holding needed, Quinlan. But thanks.”
Bryce’s eyes glowed—pure Fae predator lurking there. “Remember what we did to the last two Archangels, Hunt,” she said quietly. That was new—the raw power that thundered beneath her words. “If Celestina does something fucked up, we’ll react accordingly.”
She didn’t smile. “You might be heading in there without me today, but I’m a phone call away.”
His chest ached. She’d do it—back him up against a fucking Archangel, Solas burn him. “Noted,” he said thickly. He nodded toward the hallway. “How’s our guest?”
“He looks a lot better this morning, though the broken ribs have some mending left to do. He was still sleeping when I left.”
“What’s the plan?” Hunt kept his voice neutral. He’d slept terribly last night, every sound sending him lurching from sleep. Bryce, of course, appeared as beautiful as ever.
“Ithan can stay as long as he wants,” Bryce said simply. “I’m not turning him over to Sabine.”
“Glad to hear it,” Ithan said from behind her, and even Hunt started. The male had crept up with preternatural silence. He did look better.
Blood still crusted Holstrom’s short golden-brown hair, but the swelling around his eyes had vanished, leaving only a few purple streaks. Most of the cuts were healed, except the thick slash across his brow. That’d take another day or two. Ithan pointed past Hunt. “Is that coffee?”
Hunt busied himself with pouring three cups, passing one to Quinlan first. “A drop of coffee in a cup of milk, just as you like it.”
“Asshole.” She swiped the mug. “I don’t know how you drink it straight.”
“Because I’m a grown-up.” Hunt passed the second mug to Ithan, whose large hands engulfed the white ceramic cup that said I Survived Class of 15032 Senior Week and All I Got Was This Stupid Mug!
Ithan peered at it, his mouth twitching. “I remember this mug.”
Hunt fell silent as Bryce let out a breathy laugh. “I’m surprised you do, given how drunk you were. Even though you were a sweet baby frosh.”
Ithan chuckled, a hint of the handsome, cocky male Hunt had heard about. “You and Danika had me doing keg stands at ten in the morning. How was I supposed to stay sober?” The wolf sipped from his coffee. “My
last memory from that day is of you and Danika passed out drunk on a couch you’d moved right into the middle of the quad.”
“And why was that your last memory?” Bryce asked sweetly. “Because I passed out next to you,” Ithan said, grinning now.
Bryce smiled, and damn if it didn’t do something to Hunt’s heart. A smile of pain and joy and loss and longing—and hope. But she cleared her throat, peering at the clock. “I need to get into the shower. I’ll be late for work.” With a swish of her hips, she padded down the hallway.
Syrinx scratched at Hunt’s calf, and Hunt hissed, “Absolutely not. You had one breakfast already.” Probably two, if Bryce had fed him before going to meet her parents. Syrinx flopped down beside his steel bowl and let out a whine. Hunt tried to ignore him.
He found Ithan watching him carefully. “What?” Hunt said, not bothering to sound pleasant.
Ithan only sipped from his mug again. “Nothing.”
Hunt gulped a mouthful of coffee. Glanced down the hall to make sure Bryce was indeed in her room. His voice dropped to a low growl. “Allow me to repeat what I said to you last night. You bring trouble in here, to Bryce, and I will fucking gut you.”
Ithan’s mouth twitched upward. “I’m shaking, Athalar.”
Hunt didn’t smile back. “Are you suddenly cool with her because she’s a princess? Because of the Horn and the Starborn shit?”
Ithan’s nose crinkled with the beginnings of a snarl. “I don’t care about any of that.”
“Then why the fuck did you bother to defend her in that article? You had to know there’d be consequences with Sabine. You practically called Sabine out.”
“Danika showed up for her. My brother and the rest of the Pack of Devils showed up for her this spring. If they’re not holding a grudge, then how can I?”
“So you needed permission from your dead brother to be nice to her?” Ithan’s snarl rattled the cabinets. “Bryce was my best friend, you know.
She had Danika, yeah, but I only had her. You’ve known Bryce for what—a few months? We were friends for five years. So don’t fucking talk about me, my brother, or her as if you know anything about us. You don’t know shit, Umbra Mortis.”
“I know you were a dick to her for two years. I watched you stand by while Amelie Ravenscroft tormented her. Grow the fuck up.”
Ithan bared his teeth. Hunt bared his own right back.
Syrinx hopped to his feet and whined, demanding more food.
Hunt couldn’t help his exasperated laugh. “Fine, fine,” he said to the chimera, reaching for his container of kibble.
Ithan’s eyes burned him like a brand. Hunt had seen that same take-no-shit face during televised sunball games. “Connor was in love with her for those five years, you know.” The wolf headed over to the couch and plopped onto the cushions. “Five years, and by the end of it, he’d only managed to get her to agree to go on a date with him.”
Hunt kept his face unreadable as Syrinx devoured his second— potentially third—breakfast. “So?”
Ithan turned on the morning news before propping his feet on the coffee table and interlacing his hands behind his head. “You’re at month five, bro. Good luck to you.”
The Fae Archives hummed with activity—loud enough that Bryce had grown accustomed to keeping in her earbuds all day, even with the door to her tiny office on Sublevel Alpha shut.
It wasn’t that it was loud, exactly—the archives had the usual hush of any library. But so many people visited or studied or worked in the cavernous atrium and surrounding stacks that there was a constant, underlying roar. The scuff of footsteps, the waterfall fountain pouring from the atrium’s ceiling, the clack of keyboards blending with the crinkle of turning pages, the whispers of patrons and tourists mingling with the occasional giggle or snap of a camera.
It grated on her.
Gone were the solitary days in the gallery. The days of blasting her music through the sound system.
Lehabah was gone, too.
No incessant chatter about the latest episode of Fangs and Bangs. No whining about wanting to go outside. No dramatic monologues about Bryce’s cruelty.
Bryce stared at the dark computer screen on her glass desk. She reached out a foot to stroke Syrinx’s coat, but her toes only met air. Right—she’d left the chimera home to watch over Ithan.
She wondered if Syrinx even remembered Lehabah.
Bryce had visited the Black Dock during the days after the attack, searching for a tiny onyx boat among the mass of Sailings. None had appeared.
Lehabah had no remains anyway. The fire sprite had been snuffed out like a candle the moment a hundred thousand gallons of water had come crashing down upon her.
Bryce had gone over it, again and again. Usually during her dance classes with Madame Kyrah, amid her panting and sweating. She always arrived at the same conclusion: there was nothing she might have done to stop Lehabah’s death.
Bryce understood it, could rationally talk about it, and yet … The thoughts still circled, as if dancing right along with her: You might have found a way. Revealed yourself as Starborn earlier. Told Lehabah to run while you faced Micah.
She’d talked about it with Hunt, too. And he’d pointed out that all of those options would have resulted in Bryce’s own death, but … Bryce couldn’t get past the question: Why was Lele’s life any less valuable than Bryce’s? Her Starborn Princess status meant nothing. If it came down to it, Lele had been the better person, who had suffered for decades in bondage. The fire sprite should be free. Alive, and free, and enjoying herself.
Bryce picked up the desktop phone, dialing. Jesiba answered on the third ring. “Another question, Quinlan? That’s the third one this week.”
Bryce drummed her fingers on her glass desk. “I’ve got a nine-thousand-year-old Rhodinian bust of Thurr here.” Basically a broody male who was supposed to pass for the nearly forgotten minor storm deity. All that remained of him in their culture was the behemoth of a planet named after him. And Thursdays, apparently. Bryce had already sent a photo of it to Hunt, with the comment, Bryce Quinlan Presents: The Original Alphahole Smolder. “A museum is interested, but they’re worried the former owner fudged some documents about its history. They want to make sure it’s legit before showing it to the public. Any idea who to call in Rhodinia to verify?”
“If I’m doing your job for you, then why am I not being paid for it?” Bryce ground her teeth. “Because we’re friends?”
“You tell me.”
Jesiba huffed a soft laugh. The enchantress who’d defected from her witch-clan and sworn allegiance to the House of Flame and Shadow still lurked around Lunathion, but Bryce hadn’t seen her in months. Not since the day Jesiba had found Bryce poking around the watery ruins of the gallery library and told her not to come back.
Not in a mean way. Just in a This gallery is now permanently closed, and those books you’re looking for are hidden away where no one will ever find them sort of manner.
Jesiba said, “I suppose I should consider it an honor, to be called a friend by the Starborn Princess daughter of the Autumn King.” A slight pause, and Bryce knew what was coming next. “And the future Queen of Avallen.”
Bryce swiftly opened a news website as she hissed, “Who told you?”
“Some of the people I’ve turned into animals have remained in my employ, you know. They tell me what they overhear on the streets. Especially the sewer rats who hope to regain their true forms one day.”
Bryce truly wasn’t sure if Jesiba was serious. She sighed again. “I don’t suppose you have any insights as to why the Autumn King suddenly decided to ruin my life.”
Jesiba tsked. “Males will always try to control the females who scare them. Marriage and breeding are their go-to methods.”
“Satisfying as it is to think of my father being afraid of me, that can’t be
“Why not? It’s been months. You’ve done nothing with your new
power, your titles. Or the Horn in your back. He grew tired of waiting. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did this just to learn how you’d react.”
“Maybe.” Bryce doodled on a piece of scrap paper beside her computer.
A little heart that said BQ + HA.
“What are you going to do about it?” Jesiba asked, as if she couldn’t help it.
“Pretend it’s not happening until I can’t any longer?”
Jesiba chuckled again. “I worried, you know, when I learned you were Starborn. I’ve watched many succumb to the allure of being the Chosen One. Perhaps you and your brother have more in common than I realized.”
“I think that’s a compliment?”
“It is. Ruhn Danaan is one of the few who’s ever been strong enough to shun what he is.” Bryce grunted. “You don’t plan on doing anything with it, then,” Jesiba asked, more quietly than Bryce had ever heard. “Your talent. Or the Horn.”
“Definitely not the Horn. And it seems most of the Starborn power’s value lies in what I can breed into the Fae bloodline.” Bryce straightened, twirling her pencil between her fingers. “And what good does blinding people do? I mean, it does have its uses, but surely there are deadlier weapons to wield?” Like Hunt’s lightning.
“You killed an Archangel without access to that power. I imagine that you can now do a great many things, Quinlan.”
Bryce stiffened at the words, spoken so casually over an open line. She had no idea what Jesiba had done with the Godslayer Rifle. Honestly, she never wanted to see it again.
Bryce lowered her voice, even though she knew no one was near her little subterranean office. “I was given an order by the Asteri to lie low. Forever.”
“How terribly boring of you to obey them.”
Bryce opened her mouth, but the intercom on her desk buzzed. “Miss Quinlan, you’re needed in the northern wing. Doctor Patrus wants your opinion on that sculpture from Delsus?”
Bryce pushed the button. “Be there in five.” She said to Jesiba, “I’m going to send you some photos of this piece. I’d appreciate it if you’d deign to give me your opinion. And let me know if you have any contacts in Rhodinia who can help verify its authenticity.”
“So am I.”
“Perhaps I’ll turn you into a toad.”
“At least toads don’t wear stupid heels to work,” Bryce said, sliding her feet back into the white stilettos she’d chucked beneath her desk.
Jesiba let out another soft, wicked laugh. “A word of advice, Quinlan: think through the advantages of a marriage to Cormac Donnall before you
decide to be a cliché and refuse.”
Bryce stood, cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder. “Who says I’m not?”
There was a lengthy pause before the sorceress said, “Good girl,” and hung up.