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House of Earth and Blood: Part 4 – Chapter 68


For some reason, Hunt had expected a stone dungeon.

He didn’t know why, since he’d been in these holding cells beneath the Comitium countless times to deposit the few enemies Micah wanted left alive, but he’d somehow pictured his capture to be the mirror of what had gone down in Pangera: the dark, filthy dungeons of the Asteri, the ones that were so similar in Sandriel’s palace.

Not this white cell, the chrome bars humming with magic to nullify his own. A screen on the wall of the hallway showed a feed of the Comitium atrium: the one body spiked to the iron crucifix in its center, and the glass box, covered in dripping blood, sitting at its feet.

Justinian still groaned every now and then, his toes or fingers twitching as he slowly asphyxiated, his body trying and failing to heal his taxed lungs. His wings had already been cut off. Left on the marble floor beneath him.

Viktoria, her essence invisible within that glass box, was forced to watch. To endure Justinian’s blood dripping on the lid of her container.

Hunt had sat on the small cot and watched every second of what had been done to them. How Viktoria had screamed while Micah ripped her from that body she’d been trapped in for so long. How Justinian had fought, even as they held down his brutalized body on the crucifix, even as the iron spikes went into him. Even as they raised the crucifix, and he’d begun screaming at the pain.

A door clanged open down the hallway. Hunt didn’t rise from the cot to see who approached. The wound on his temple had healed, but he hadn’t bothered to wash away the blood streaking down his cheek and jaw.

The footsteps down the hall were steady, unhurried. Isaiah.

Hunt remained seated as his old companion paused before the bars.

“Why.” There was nothing charming, nothing warm on the handsome face. Just anger, exhaustion, and fear.

Hunt said, aware of every camera and not caring, “Because it has to stop at some point.”

“It stops when you’re dead. When everyone we love is dead.” Isaiah pointed to the screen behind him, to Justinian’s ravaged body and Viktoria’s blood-soaked box. “Does this make you feel like you’re on the right path, Hunt? Was this worth it?”

When he’d gotten Justinian’s message that the deal was going down, as he climbed into bed, he’d realized it wasn’t worth it. Not even with the medwitch’s antidote. Not after these weeks with Bryce. Not after what they’d done on that couch. But Hunt said, because it was still true, “Nothing’s changed since Mount Hermon, Isaiah. Nothing has gotten better.”

“How long have you three been planning this shit?”

“Since I killed those three drug lords. Since they told me about the synth and what it could do. Since they told me what kind of power it gave Danika Fendyr when she took it in the right doses. We decided it was time. No more fucking bargains with Micah. No more deaths for deaths. Just the ones we choose.”

The three of them had known there was one place, one person, who might get the synth. He’d paid the Viper Queen a private visit a few days ago. Had found her in her den of poisons and told her what he wanted. Vik had the gold, thanks to the paychecks she’d saved up for centuries.

It hadn’t occurred to him that the snake would be in the Archangel’s pocket. Or looking for a way into it.

Isaiah shook his head. “And you thought that you, you and Vik and Justinian and whatever idiots would follow you, could take the synth and do what? Kill Micah? Sandriel? All of them?”

“That was the idea.” They’d planned to do it at the Summit. And afterward, they’d make their way to Pangera. To the Eternal City. And finish what was started so long ago.

“What if it turned on you—what if you took too much and ripped yourself to shreds instead?”

“I was working on getting my hands on an antidote.” Hunt shrugged. “But I’ve already confessed to everything, so spare me the interrogation.”

Isaiah banged a hand on the cell bars. Wind howled in the corridor around him. “You couldn’t have let it go, couldn’t serve and prove yourself and—”

“I tried to stop it, for fuck’s sake. I was on that barge because I realized …” He shook his head. “It makes no difference at this point. But I did try. I saw that footage of what it really did to someone who took it, and even with an antidote, it was too fucking dangerous. But Justinian and Vik refused to quit. By the time Vik gave the Viper Queen the gold, I just wanted us to go our separate ways.”

Isaiah shook his head in disgust.

Hunt spat, “You might be able to accept the bit in your mouth, but I never will.”

“I don’t,” Isaiah hissed. “But I have a reason to work for my freedom, Hunt.” A flash of his eyes. “I thought you did, too.”

Hunt’s stomach twisted. “Bryce had nothing to do with this.”

“Of course she didn’t. You shattered her fucking heart in front of everyone. It was obvious she had no idea.”

Hunt flinched, his chest aching. “Micah won’t go after her to—”

“No. You’re lucky as fuck, but no. He won’t crucify her to punish you. Though don’t be naïve enough to believe the thought didn’t cross his mind.”

Hunt couldn’t stop his shudder of relief.

Isaiah said, “Micah knows that you tried to stop the deal. Saw the messages between you and Justinian about it. That’s why they’re in the lobby right now and you’re here.”

“What’s he going to do with me?”

“He hasn’t declared it yet.” His face softened slightly. “I came down to say goodbye. Just in case we can’t later on.”

Hunt nodded. He’d accepted his fate. He’d tried, and failed, and would pay the price. Again.

It was a better end than the slow death of his soul as he took one life after another for Micah. “Tell her I’m sorry,” Hunt said. “Please.”

At the end of the day, despite Vik and Justinian, despite the brutal end that would come his way, it was the sight of Bryce’s face that haunted him. The sight of the tears he’d caused.

He’d promised her a future and then brought that pain and despair and sorrow to her face. He’d never hated himself more.

Isaiah’s fingers lifted toward the bars, as if he’d reach for Hunt’s hand, but then lowered back to his side. “I will.”

“It’s been three days,” Lehabah said. “And the Governor hasn’t announced what he’s doing with Athie.”

Bryce looked up from the book she was reading in the library. “Turn off that television.”

Lehabah did no such thing, her glowing face fixed on the tablet’s screen. The news footage of the Comitium lobby and the now-rotting corpse of the triarii soldier crucified there. The blood-crusted glass box beneath it. Despite the endless bullshitting by the news anchors and analysts, no information had leaked regarding why two of Micah’s top soldiers had been so brutally executed. A failed coup was all that had been suggested. No mention of Hunt. Whether he lived.

“He’s alive,” Lehabah whispered. “I know he is. I can feel it.”

Bryce ran a finger over a line of text. It was the tenth time she’d attempted to read it in the twenty minutes since the messenger had left, dropping off a vial of the antidote from the medwitch who’d taken the kristallos venom from her leg. Apparently, she’d found the way to make the antidote work without her being present. But Bryce didn’t marvel. Not when the vial was just a silent reminder of what she and Hunt had shared that day.

She’d debated throwing it out, but had opted to lock the antidote in the safe in Jesiba’s office, right next to that six-inch golden bullet for the Godslayer Rifle. Life and death, salvation and destruction, now entombed there together.

“Violet Kappel said on the morning news that there might be more would-be rebels—”

“Turn off that screen, Lehabah, before I throw it in the fucking tank.”

Her sharp words cut through the library. The rustling creatures in their cages stilled. Even Syrinx stirred from his nap.

Lehabah dimmed to a faint pink. “Are you sure there’s nothing we can—”

Bryce slammed the book shut and hauled it with her, aiming for the stairs.

She didn’t hear Lehabah’s next words over the front door’s buzzer. Work had proved busier than usual, a grand total of six shoppers wasting her time asking about shit they had no interest in buying. If she had to deal with one more idiot today—

She glanced at the monitors. And froze.

The Autumn King surveyed the gallery, the showroom stocked with priceless artifacts, the door that led up to Jesiba’s office and the window in it that overlooked the floor. He stared at the window for long enough that Bryce wondered if he could somehow see through the one-way glass, all the way to the Godslayer Rifle mounted on the wall behind Jesiba’s desk. Sense its deadly presence, and that of the golden bullet in the wall safe beside it. But his eyes drifted on, to the iron door sealed to her right, and finally, finally to Bryce herself.

He’d never come to see her. In all these years, he’d never come. Why bother?

“There are cameras everywhere,” she said, staying seated behind her desk, hating every whiff of his ashes-and-nutmeg scent that dragged her back twelve years, to the weeping thirteen-year-old she’d been the last time she’d spoken to him. “In case you’re thinking of stealing something.”

He ignored the taunt and slid his hands into the pockets of his black jeans, still conducting his silent survey of the gallery. He was gorgeous, her father. Tall, muscled, with an impossibly beautiful face beneath that long red hair, the exact same shade and silken texture as her own. He looked just a few years older than her, too—dressed like a young man, with those black jeans and a matching long-sleeved T-shirt. But his amber eyes were ancient and cruel as he said at last, “My son told me what occurred on the river on Wednesday night.”

How he managed to make that slight emphasis on my son into an insult was beyond her.

“Ruhn is a good dog.”

Prince Ruhn deemed it necessary that I know, since you might be … in peril.”

“And yet you waited three days? Were you hoping I’d be crucified, too?”

Her father’s eyes flashed. “I have come to tell you that your security has been assured, and that the Governor knows you were innocent in the matter and will not dare to harm you. Even to punish Hunt Athalar.”

She snorted. Her father stilled. “You are incredibly foolish if you think that would not be enough to break Athalar at last.”

Ruhn must have told him about that, too. The disaster that had been this thing between her and Hunt. Whatever it had been. Whatever using her like that could be called.

“I don’t want to talk about this.” Not with him, not with anyone. Fury had disappeared again, and while Juniper had messaged, Bryce kept the conversation brief. Then the calls from her mother and Randall had started. And the big lies had begun.

She didn’t know why she’d lied about Hunt’s involvement. Maybe because explaining her own idiocy in letting Hunt in—being so fucking blind to the fact that he’d led her around when everyone had warned her, that he’d even told her he would love Shahar until the day he died—was too much. It gutted her to know he’d chosen the Archangel and their rebellion over her, over them … She couldn’t talk to her mom about it. Not without completely losing what was left of her ability to function.

So Bryce had gone back to work, because what else was there to do? She’d heard nothing from the places where she’d applied for new jobs.

“I’m not talking about this,” she repeated.

“You will talk about this. With your king.” A crackling ember of his power set the firstlights guttering.

“You are not my king.”

“Legally, I am,” her father said. “You are listed as a half-Fae citizen. That places you under my jurisdiction both in this city and as a member of the House of Sky and Breath.”

She clicked her nails together. “So what is it you want to talk about, Your Majesty?”

“Have you stopped looking for the Horn?”

She blinked. “Does it matter now?”

“It is a deadly artifact. Just because you learned the truth regarding Danika and Athalar doesn’t mean whoever wishes to use it is done.”

“Didn’t Ruhn tell you? Danika stole the Horn on a lark. Ditched it somewhere in one of her flying-high-as-a-fucking-kite moments. It was a dead end.” At her father’s frown, she explained, “The kristallos were all accidentally summoned by Danika and the others who took synth, thanks to the black salt in it. We were wrong in even looking for the Horn. There was no one pursuing it.”

She couldn’t decide whom she hated more: Hunt, Danika, or herself for not seeing their lies. Not wanting to see any of it. It haunted every step, every breath, that loathing. Burned deep inside.

“Even if no enemy seeks it, it is worth ensuring that the Horn does not fall into the wrong hands.”

“Only Fae hands, right?” She smiled coldly. “I thought your Chosen One son was put on its tail.”

“He is otherwise occupied.” Ruhn must have told him to go fuck himself.

“Well, if you can think where Danika unloaded it in her synth-high stupor, I’m all ears.”

“It is no trivial matter. Even if the Horn is long defunct, it still holds a special place in Fae history. It will mean a great deal to my people if it is recovered. I’d think with your professional expertise, such a search would be of interest to you. And your employer.”

She looked back at her computer screen. “Whatever.”

He paused, and then his power buzzed, warping every audio feed before he said, “I loved your mother very much, you know.”

“Yeah, so much you left a scar on her face.”

She could have sworn he flinched. “Do not think I have not spent every moment since then regretting my actions. Living in shame.”

“Could have fooled me.”

His power rumbled through the room. “You are so much like her. More than you know. She never forgave anyone for anything.”

“I take that as a compliment.” That fire burned and raged inside her head, her bones.

Her father said quietly, “I would have made her my queen. I had the paperwork ready.”

She blinked. “How surprisingly un-elitist of you.” Her mother had never suggested, never hinted at it. “She would have hated being queen. She would have said no.”

“She loved me enough to have said yes.” Absolute certainty laced his words.

“You think that somehow erases what you did?”

“No. Nothing shall ever erase what I did.”

“Let’s skip the woe-is-me bullshit. You came here after all these years to tell me this crap?”

Her father looked at her for a long moment. Then strode for the door, opening it in silence. But he said before he stepped into the street, his red hair gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, “I came here after all these years to tell you that you may be like your mother, but you are also more like me than you realize.” His amber eyes—her own—flickered. “And that is not a good thing.”

The door shut, the gallery darkening. Bryce stared at the computer screen before her, then typed in a few words.

There was still nothing on Hunt. No mention of him in the news. Not a whisper about whether the Umbra Mortis was imprisoned or tortured or alive or dead.

As if he had never existed. As if she had dreamed him up.


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