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House of Earth and Blood: Part 3 – Chapter 56


A stunning woman in her mid-forties appeared on the screen, her sheet of black hair still untouched by gray, her freckled face just beginning to show the signs of a mortal life span.

From what Hunt could see, Ember Quinlan was seated on a worn green couch situated against oak-paneled walls, her long, jeans-clad legs folded beneath her.

Bryce rolled her eyes. “I’d say most people need liquid courage when dealing with you, Mom.” But she smiled. One of those broad smiles that did funny things to Hunt’s sense of balance.

Ember’s dark eyes shifted toward Hunt. “I think Bryce is confusing me with herself.”

Bryce waved off the comment. “Where’s Dad?”

“He had a long day at work—he’s making some coffee so he doesn’t fall asleep.”

Even through the video feed, Ember possessed a grounded sort of presence that commanded attention. She said, “You must be Athie.”

Before he could answer, a male eased onto the couch beside Ember.

Bryce beamed in a way Hunt hadn’t seen before. “Hey, Dad.”

Randall Silago held two coffees, one of which he handed to Ember as he grinned back at his daughter. Unlike his wife, the years or the war had left their mark on him: his black braided hair was streaked with silver, his brown skin marred with a few brutal scars. But his dark eyes were friendly as he sipped from his mug—a chipped white one that said Insert Cliché Dad Joke Here. “I’m still scared of that fancy coffee machine you bought us for Winter Solstice,” he said by way of greeting.

“I’ve shown you how to use it literally three times.”

Her mother chuckled, toying with a silver pendant around her neck. “He’s old-school.”

Hunt had looked up how much the built-in machine in this apartment cost—if Bryce had bought them anything remotely similar, she must have dumped a considerable portion of her paycheck on it. Money she did not have. Not with her debt to Jesiba.

He doubted her parents knew that, doubted they’d have accepted that machine if they’d known the money could have gone toward paying back her debts to the sorceress.

Randall’s eyes shifted to Hunt, the warmth cooling to something harder. The eyes of the fabled sharpshooter—the man who’d taught his daughter how to defend herself. “You must be Bryce’s sort-of roommate.” Hunt saw the man notice his tattoos—on his brow, on his wrist. Recognition flared across Randall’s face.

Yet he didn’t sneer. Didn’t cringe.

Bryce elbowed Hunt in the ribs, reminding him to actually speak. “I’m Hunt Athalar,” he said, glancing at Bryce. “Or Athie, as she and Lehabah call me.”

Randall slowly set down his coffee. Yeah, that had been recognition in the man’s face a moment ago. But Randall narrowed his eyes at his daughter. “You were going to mention this when, exactly?”

Bryce rootled through the pastry bag on the counter and pulled out a chocolate croissant. She bit in and said around it, “He’s not as cool as you think, Dad.”

Hunt snorted. “Thanks.”

Ember said nothing. Didn’t even move. But she watched every bite Bryce took.

Randall met Hunt’s stare through the feed. “You were stationed at Meridan when I was over there. I was running recon the day you took on that battalion.”

“Rough battle” was all Hunt said.

Shadows darkened Randall’s eyes. “Yeah, it was.”

Hunt shut out the memory of that one-sided massacre, of how many humans and their few Vanir allies hadn’t walked away from his sword or lightning. He’d been serving Sandriel then, and her orders had been brutal: no prisoners. She’d sent him and Pollux out that day, ahead of her legion, to intercept the small rebel force camped in a mountain pass.

Hunt had worked around her order as best he could. He’d made the deaths quick.

Pollux had taken his time. And enjoyed every second of it.

And when Hunt could no longer listen to people screaming for Pollux’s mercy, he’d ended their lives, too. Pollux had raged, the brawl between them leaving both angels spitting blood onto the rocky earth. Sandriel had been delighted by it, even if she’d thrown Hunt into her dungeons for a few days as punishment for ending Pollux’s fun too soon.

Beneath the counter, Bryce brushed her crumb-covered hand over Hunt’s. There had been no one, after that battle, to wash away the blood and put him in bed. Would it have been better or worse to have known Bryce then? To have fought, knowing he could return to her?

Bryce squeezed his fingers, leaving a trail of buttery flakes, and opened the bag for a second croissant.

Ember watched her daughter dig through the pastries and again toyed with the silver pendant—a circle set atop two triangles. The Embrace, Hunt realized. The union of Solas and Cthona. Ember frowned. “Why,” she asked Bryce, “is Hunt Athalar your roommate?”

“He was booted from the 33rd for his questionable fashion sense,” she said, munching on the croissant. “I told him his boring black clothes don’t bother me, and let him stay here.”

Ember rolled her eyes. The exact same expression he’d seen on Bryce’s face moments before. “Do you ever manage to get a straight answer out of her, Hunt? Because I’ve known her for twenty-five years and she’s never given me one.”

Bryce glared at her mother, then turned to Hunt. “Do not feel obligated to answer that.”

Ember let out an outraged click of her tongue. “I wish I could say that the big city corrupted my lovely daughter, but she was this rude even before she left for university.”

Hunt couldn’t help his low chuckle. Randall leaned back on the couch. “It’s true,” Randall said. “You should have seen their fights. I don’t think there was a single person in Nidaros who didn’t hear them hollering at each other. It echoed off the gods-damned mountains.”

Both Quinlan women scowled at him. That expression was the same, too.

Ember seemed to peer over their shoulders. “When was the last time you cleaned, Bryce Adelaide Quinlan?”

Bryce stiffened. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“I can see dust on that coffee table.”

“You. Can. Not.”

Ember’s eyes danced with devilish delight. “Does Athie know about JJ?”

Hunt couldn’t stop himself from going rigid. JJ—an ex? She hadn’t ever mentioned—Oh. Right. Hunt smirked. “Jelly Jubilee and I are good friends.”

Bryce grumbled something he chose not to hear.

Ember leaned closer to the screen. “All right, Hunt. If she showed you JJ, then she’s got to like you.” Bryce, mercifully, refrained from mentioning to her parents how he’d discovered her doll collection in the first place. Ember continued, “So tell me about yourself.”

Randall said flatly to his wife. “He’s Hunt Athalar.”

“I know,” Ember said. “But all I’ve heard are horrible war stories. I want to know about the real male. And get a straight answer about why you’re living in my daughter’s guest room.”

Bryce had warned him while they cleaned: Do not say a word about the murders.

But he had a feeling that Ember Quinlan could sniff out lies like a bloodhound, so Hunt smudged the truth. “Jesiba is working with my boss to find a stolen relic. With the Summit happening in two weeks, the barracks are overloaded with guests, so Bryce generously offered me a room to make working together easier.”

“Sure,” Ember said. “My daughter, who never once shared her precious Starlight Fancy toys with a single kid in Nidaros, but only let them look at the stupid things, offered up the entire guest room of her own goodwill.”

Randall nudged his wife with a knee, a silent warning, perhaps, of a man used to keeping the peace between two highly opinionated women.

Bryce said, “This is why I told him to have a drink before we dialed you.”

Ember sipped from her coffee. Randall picked up a newspaper from the table and began to flip through it. Ember asked, “So you won’t let us come visit this weekend because of this case?”

Bryce winced. “Yes. It’s not the sort of thing you guys could tag along on.”

A hint of the warrior shone through as Randall’s eyes sharpened. “It’s dangerous?”

“No,” Bryce lied. “But we need to be a little stealthy.”

“And bringing along two humans,” Ember said testily, “is the opposite of that?”

Bryce sighed at the ceiling. “Bringing along my parents,” she countered, “would undermine my image as a cool antiquities dealer.”

Assistant antiquities dealer,” her mother corrected.

“Ember,” Randall warned.

Bryce’s mouth tightened. Apparently, this was a conversation they’d had before. He wondered if Ember saw the flicker of hurt in her daughter’s eyes.

It was enough that Hunt found himself saying, “Bryce knows more people in this city than I do—she’s a pro at navigating all this. She’s a real asset to the 33rd.”

Ember considered him, her gaze frank. “Micah is your boss, isn’t he?”

A polite way of putting what Micah was to him.

“Yeah,” Hunt said. Randall was watching him now. “The best I’ve had.”

Ember’s stare fell on the tattoo across his brow. “That’s not saying much.”

“Mom, can we not?” Bryce sighed. “How’s the pottery business?”

Ember opened her mouth, but Randall nudged her knee again, a silent plea to let it drop. “Business,” Ember said tightly, “is going great.”

Bryce knew her mother was a brewing tempest.

Hunt was kind to them, friendly even, well aware that her mom was now on a mission to figure out why he was here, and what existed between them. But he asked Randall about his job as co-head of an organization to help humans traumatized by their military service and asked her mom about her roadside stand selling pottery of fat babies lolling in various beds of vegetables.

Her mom and Hunt were currently debating which sunball players were best this season, and Randall was still flipping through the newspaper and chiming in every now and then.

It had gutted her to hear what had happened to Hunt’s own mother. She kept the call going longer than usual because of it. Because he was right. Rubbing her aching leg beneath the table—she’d strained it again at some point during their cleaning—Bryce dug into her third croissant and said to Randall, “This still isn’t as good as yours.”

“Move back home,” her dad said, “and you could have them every day.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, eating another mouthful. She massaged her thigh. “I thought you were supposed to be the cool parent. You’ve become even worse than Mom with the nagging.”

“I was always worse than your mother,” he said mildly. “I was just better at hiding it.”

Bryce said to Hunt, “This is why my parents have to ambush me if they want to visit. I’d never let them through the door.”

Hunt just glanced at her lap—her thigh—before he asked Ember, “Have you tried to get her to a medwitch for that leg?”

Bryce froze at exactly the same heartbeat as her mother.

“What’s wrong with her leg?” Ember’s eyes dropped to the lower half of her screen as if she could somehow see Bryce’s leg beneath the camera’s range, Randall following suit.

“Nothing,” Bryce said, glaring at Hunt. “A busybody angel, that’s what.”

“It’s the wound she got two years ago,” Hunt answered. “It still hurts her.” He rustled his wings, as if unable to help the impatient gesture. “And she still insists on running.”

Ember’s eyes filled with alarm. “Why would you do that, Bryce?”

Bryce set down her croissant. “It’s none of anyone’s business.”

“Bryce,” Randall said. “If it bothers you, you should see a medwitch.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” Bryce said through her teeth.

“Then why have you been rubbing your leg under the counter?” Hunt drawled.

“Because I was trying to convince it not to kick you in the face, asshole,” Bryce hissed.

Bryce,” her mother gasped. Randall’s eyes widened.

But Hunt laughed. He rose, picking up the empty pastry bag and squishing it into a ball before tossing it into the trash can with the skill of one of his beloved sunball players. “I think the wound still has venom lingering from the demon who attacked her. If she doesn’t get it checked out before the Drop, she’ll be in pain for centuries.”

Bryce shot to her feet, hiding her wince at the ripple of pain in her thigh. They’d never discussed it—that the kristallos’s venom might indeed still be in her leg. “I don’t need you deciding what is best for me, you—”

“Alphahole?” Hunt supplied, going to the sink and turning on the water. “We’re partners. Partners look out for each other. If you won’t listen to me about your gods-damned leg, then maybe you’ll listen to your parents.”

“How bad is it?” Randall asked quietly.

Bryce whirled back to the computer. “It’s fine.”

Randall pointed to the floor behind her. “Balance on that leg and tell me that again.”

Bryce refused to move. Filling a glass of water, Hunt smiled, pure male satisfaction.

Ember reached for her phone, which she’d discarded on the cushions beside her. “I’ll find the nearest medwitch and see if she can squeeze you in tomorrow—”

“I am not going to a medwitch,” Bryce snarled, and grabbed the rim of the laptop. “It was great chatting with you. I’m tired. Good night.”

Randall began to object, eyes shooting daggers at Ember, but Bryce slammed the laptop shut.

At the sink, Hunt was the portrait of smug, angelic arrogance. She aimed for her bedroom.

Ember, at least, waited two minutes before video-calling Bryce on her phone.

“Is your father behind this case?” Ember asked, venom coating each word. Even through the camera, her rage was palpable.

“Randall is not behind this,” Bryce said dryly, flopping onto her bed.

“Your other father,” Ember snapped. “This sort of arrangement reeks of him.”

Bryce kept her face neutral. “No. Jesiba and Micah are working together. Hunt and I are mere pawns.”

“Micah Domitus is a monster,” Ember breathed.

“All the Archangels are. He’s an arrogant ass, but not that bad.”

Ember’s eyes simmered. “Are you being careful?”

“I’m still taking birth control, yes.”

“Bryce Adelaide Quinlan, you know what I mean.”

“Hunt has my back.” Even if he’d thrown her under the bus by mentioning her leg to them.

Her mom was having none of it. “I have no doubt that sorceress would push you into harm’s way if it made her more money. Micah’s no better. Hunt might have your back, but don’t forget that these Vanir only look out for themselves. He’s Micah’s personal assassin, for fuck’s sake. And one of the Fallen. The Asteri hate him. He’s a slave because of it.”

“He’s a slave because we live in a fucked-up world.” Hazy wrath fogged her vision, but she blinked it away.

Her dad called out from the kitchen, asking where the microwave popcorn was. Ember hollered back that it was in the same exact place it always was, her eyes never leaving the phone’s camera. “I know you’ll bite my head off for it, but let me just say this.”

“Gods, Mom—”

“Hunt might be a good roommate, and he might be nice to look at, but remember that he’s a Vanir male. A very, very powerful Vanir male, even with those tattoos keeping him in line. He and every male like him is lethal.”

“Yeah, and you never let me forget it.” It was an effort not to look at the tiny scar on her mom’s cheekbone.

Old shadows banked the light in her mom’s eyes, and Bryce winced. “Seeing you with an older Vanir male—”

“I’m not with him, Mom—”

“It brings me back to that place, Bryce.” She ran a hand through her dark hair. “I’m sorry.”

Her mom might as well have punched her in the heart.

Bryce wished she could reach through the camera and wrap her arms around her, breathing in her honeysuckle-and-nutmeg scent.

Then Ember said, “I’ll make some calls and get that medwitch appointment for your leg.”

Bryce scowled. “No, thanks.”

“You’re going to that appointment, Bryce.”

Bryce turned the phone and stretched out her leg over the covers so her mother could see. She rotated her foot. “See? No problems.”

Her mother’s face hardened to steel that matched the wedding band on her finger. “Just because Danika died doesn’t mean you need to suffer, too.”

Bryce stared at her mother, who was always so good at cutting to the heart of everything, at rendering her into rubble with a few words. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

Bullshit, Bryce.” Her mom’s eyes glazed with tears. “You think Danika would want you limping in pain for the rest of your existence? You think she would’ve wanted you to stop dancing?”

“I don’t want to talk about Danika.” Her voice trembled.

Ember shook her head in disgust. “I’ll message the medwitch’s address and number when I get the appointment for you. Good night.”

She hung up without another word.


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