Tharion’s blood dripped into the porcelain sink of the hushed, humid bathroom, the roar of the crowd a distant rumble through the cracked green tiles. He breathed in through his nose. Out through his mouth. Pain rippled along his aching ribs.
The minotaur he’d faced in the Viper Queen’s ring had been twice his weight and at least four feet taller than him. He had a hole in his shoulder leaking blood down the sink drain thanks to the horns he hadn’t been fast enough to avoid. And several broken ribs thanks to blows from fists the size of his head.
Tharion loosed another breath, wincing, and reached for the small medkit on the lip of the sink. His fingers shook, fumbling with the vial of potion that would blunt the edge of the pain and accelerate the healing his Vanir body was already doing.
He chucked the cork into the trash can beside the sink, atop the wads of bloodied cotton bandages and wipes he’d used to clean his face. It had somehow been more important than addressing the pain—the hole in his shoulder—that he should be able to see his face, the male beneath.
The reflection wasn’t kind. Purple smudges beneath his eyes matched the bruises along his jaw, the cuts on his lip, his swollen nose. All things that would fade and heal swiftly enough, but the hollowness in his eyes … It was his face, and yet a stranger’s.
Tharion didn’t meet his own gaze in the mirror as he tipped back the vial and chugged it. Silky, tasteless liquid coated his mouth, his throat. He’d once done shots with the same abandon. In the span of a few weeks, everything had gone to shit. His whole fucking life had gone to shit.
He’d given up everything he was and had been and ever would be.
He’d chosen this, being chained to the Viper Queen. He’d been desperate, but the burden of his decision weighed on him. He hadn’t been allowed to leave the warren of warehouses in the two days since arriving—hadn’t really wanted to, anyway. Even the need to return to the water was taken care of for him: a special tub had been prepared below this level with water pumped in directly from the Istros.
The door groaned open, and a familiar female scent announced the identity of the new arrival. As if at this hour, in this bathroom, it could be anyone else.
The Viper Queen had a crew of fighters. But the two of them … she treated them like prized racehorses. They fought during the prime-time slots. This bathroom was for their private use, along with the suite upstairs.
The Viper Queen owned them. And she wanted everyone to know it.
“I warmed them up for you,” Tharion rasped over a shoulder at Ariadne. The dark-haired dragon, clad in a black bodysuit that accentuated her luscious curves, turned toward him.
Ariadne halted at a sink a few feet away, surveying the angles of her face in the mirror as she washed her hands.
“Still as pretty as ever,” Tharion managed to tease.
That earned him a sidelong assessment. “You look like shit.”
“Nice to see you, too,” he drawled, the healing potion tingling through him.
“You have a hole in your shoulder,” she said without taking her gaze from his.
Tharion peered at the ghastly wound, even as his skin knitted closed, the sensation like spiders crawling over the area. “Builds character.”
He stiffened. “Against what?”
“Don’t know, don’t really care.”
Ariadne continued examining herself in the mirror. Was she hunting for herself—the person she’d been before coming here—as well? Or maybe the person she’d been before the Astronomer had trapped her inside a ring and worn her on his finger for decades?
Tharion had done what the Viper Queen had asked regarding Ari: he’d woven a web of lies to his Aux contacts about the dragon being commandeered for security purposes. So the Viper Queen didn’t technically own Ari as a slave—Ari remained a slave owned by someone else. She just … lived here now.
“Your adoring public awaits,” Tharion said, grabbing another cotton wipe and holding it under the running water before beginning to clean the blood from his bare chest. He could have jumped in one of the showers to his left, but it would have stung like Hel on his still-mending wounds. He twisted, straining for the particularly nasty slice along his left shoulder blade. It remained out of reach, even for his long fingers.
“Here,” Ariadne said, taking the wipe from his hand.
Tharion braced his hands on the sink. Ariadne dabbed along the wound, wiping up blood, and he clenched the porcelain hard enough for it to groan beneath his fingers. He gritted his teeth against the stinging, and into the silence, the dragon said, “You can call me Ari.”
“Everyone seems inclined to use it, so it might as well be my choice for you to do so.”
“Was that your thinking when you abandoned my friends right before a deathstalker attacked them?” He couldn’t keep the bite from his voice, antagonizing her be damned. “Everyone expected the worst of you, so why not just be the worst?”
“Yes. Real honorable of you to ditch them.”
“They seemed capable of looking after themselves.”
“They are. But you bailed all the same.”
“If you’re so invested in their safety, perhaps you should have been there.” Ari tossed the wipe in the trash and grabbed another one. “Who taught you to fight, anyway?”
“Call it curiosity. You don’t seem … serious enough to be the River Queen’s Captain of Intelligence.”
“Such a flatterer.”
But embers sparked in her eyes, so Tharion shrugged. “I learned how to fight the usual way: I enrolled in the Blue Court Military Academy after school, and have spent the years since honing those skills. Nothing cool. You?”
He opened his mouth to respond, but the dragon turned on a booted heel. “Ari—” he called before she could reach the door. “We didn’t, you know.”
She turned, eyebrows rising. “Didn’t what?”
“Expect the worst of you.”
The dripping of his blood again filled the bathroom.
Tharion waited until the potion patched most of the holes in his skin, and didn’t bother tugging the upper half of the black bodysuit on before following the dragon back to the heat and smells and light of the fighting ring.
Ari was just getting started. With impressive calm, she squared off against three male lion shifters, the enormous cats circling her with deadly precision. She turned with them, not letting the lions get behind her, her skin beginning to glow with molten scales, her black eyes flickering red.
Across the pit, the one-way window that peered over the ring reflected the glaring spotlights. But Tharion knew who stood on the other side of it, amid the plush finery of her private quarters. Who watched the dragon fight, assessing the intensity of the crowd’s roar.
“Traitor,” someone hissed to his left.
Tharion found two young mer males glaring at him from the risers above. Both clutched beers and had the glazed look of guys who’d already downed a few.
Tharion gave them a bland nod and faced the ring again.
“Fucking loser,” the other male spat.
Tharion kept his eyes on Ari. Steam rippled from the dragon’s mouth. One of the lions lunged, swiping with fingers that ended in curved claws, but she ducked away. The concrete floor singed where her feet had been. Preliminary blast marks.
“Some fucking captain,” the first male taunted.
Tharion ground his teeth. This wasn’t the first time in the past few days that one of his people had recognized him and told him precisely how they felt. Everyone knew Tharion had defected from the Blue Court. Everyone knew he’d defected and come here to serve the Meat Market’s depraved ruler. The River Queen and her daughter had made sure of it.
Captain Whatever, Ithan Holstrom had once called him. It seemed he truly embodied it now.
You gave that up, he reminded himself. He could never again so much as set foot in the Istros. The moment he did, his former queen would kill him. Or order her sobeks to rip him to shreds. Something twisted in his gut.
He was aware that his parents lived only because he’d gotten messages from them expressing their outrage and disappointment. We already lost one child, his mother had written. Now we lose another. Defecting, Tharion? What in Ogenas’s depths were you thinking?
He didn’t write back. Didn’t apologize for being so reckless and selfish that he hadn’t thought of their safety before committing this act of insanity. He’d not only sworn himself to the Viper Queen, he’d bound himself to her, too. After all the shit that had gone down in Pangera … no place else was safe for him, anyway. Only here, where the Viper Queen was allowed to rule.
“You’re a disgrace,” the other mer male went on.
Something liquid and foamy splashed on Tharion’s head, his bare shoulders. The fucker had thrown his beer.
Tharion snarled up at them, and the males had the good sense to back up a step, like they might have finally remembered what Tharion was capable of when provoked. But before he could beat the living shit out of them, one of the Viper Queen’s personal guards—one of those glassy-eyed Fae defectors—said, “Fishboy. Boss wants you. Now.”
Tharion stiffened, but he had no choice. The tugging sensation in his gut would only worsen the longer he resisted. Best to get this over with now.
So he left the assholes behind. Left Ari with the lions, who’d be deep-fried in about twenty minutes, or whenever the dragon had put on enough of a show to please the audience and did what she could have accomplished without so much as stepping into the ring.
He had no doubt there’d be some vendor waiting in the wings to scoop up the cooked carcasses and sell them in a food stall nearby. It wasn’t called the Meat Market for nothing.
It was easier said than done, when everything kept circling: the failed attack on the lab, Cormac’s death … They’d all been so fucking dumb, thinking they could take on the Asteri. And now here he was.
Honestly, he’d been headed this way for a while before that. Starting with the debacle with the River Queen’s daughter. Then Lesia’s death a year ago. This last month had been a culmination of that shit. Of what a pathetic, weak failure he’d always been beneath the surface.
Tharion knocked once on the wooden door, then entered.
The Viper Queen stood at the window overlooking the pit, where Ari had switched to taunting the lions. They were now frantic to escape. Everywhere the cats lunged to flee the ring, a wall of flame blocked their exit.
“She’s a natural performer,” the Viper Queen observed without turning. The ruler of the Meat Market wore a white silk romper cut to her slim figure, feet bare. A cigarette dangled from her manicured hand. “You could learn from her.”
Tharion leaned against the wooden doorframe. “Is that an order or a suggestion?”
The Viper Queen pivoted, shiny dark hair swaying with her. Her lips were painted their usual dark purple, offsetting the snake shifter’s pale skin. “Do you know the lengths I went to in procuring that minotaur for you tonight?”
Tharion kept his mouth shut. How many times had he stood like this in front of the River Queen, silent while she ripped into him? He’d lost count long ago.
The Viper Queen’s teeth flashed, delicate fangs stark against the purple of her lips. “Five minutes, Tharion?” Her voice dropped to a deadly purr. “A great deal of effort on my part, and all I get out of it, all my crowd gets, is a five-minute fight?”
Tharion gestured to his shoulder. “I’d think goring me and then hurling me across the ring was spectacle enough.”
She crooked a finger. That tugging in his gut increased. As if they possessed a mind of their own, his feet and legs moved. They carried him to the window, to her side.
He hated it—not the summoning, but the fact that he’d stopped any attempt at defying it.
“To make up for you blowing your load,” the Viper Queen drawled, “I told Ari to drag out her fight.” She inclined her head to the ring. Ari’s face had gone empty and cold as she made the lions scream under her flames.
Tharion’s gut churned. No wonder Ari hadn’t stayed long to talk to him. But she’d helped him anyway. He had no idea how to unpack that.
Tharion stepped away. “Is there a reason you called me up here?” He wanted a shower, and the relief that only sleep could offer him.
Her lips curled upward. She tugged back the pristine sleeve of her romper, exposing her moon-pale wrist. “Considering how little heart you put into your performance, I thought you might need a pick-me-up.”
Tharion clenched his teeth. He wasn’t a slave—though he’d been stupid and desperate enough to offer himself as such to her. But instead she’d offered him something nearly as bad: the venom only she could produce.
And now, after that initial taste of it … His mouth filled with saliva. The scent of her skin, the blood and venom beneath it—he was helpless before her, a hungry fucking animal.
With every scrap of will left in him, Tharion lifted his eyes to hers. Let her see how much he hated this, hated her, hated himself.
A long-overdue punishment.
The Viper Queen slid one of her gold-painted nails down her wrist. Opened a vein churning with that milky, opalescent venom that made him see the gods themselves.
“Go ahead,” she urged, and Tharion wanted to scream, to weep, to run, as he grabbed her arm to his mouth and sucked in a mouthful of the venom.
He’d heard the whispers long before he’d come here: her venom was the best high an immortal could ever attain. Having tasted it, he didn’t disagree. Didn’t blame those Fae defectors who served as her bodyguards in exchange for hits of this.
He’d once pitied them, scorned them.
The Viper Queen’s hand trailed up his chest to his neck, tracing over the spot where his gills usually appeared. She scraped her painted nails over it—a mark of pure ownership. Not only of his body, but of who he was, who he’d once been.
Her fingers tightened on his throat. An invitation, this time.
“We can’t just leave Tharion in here.”
“Trust me, Holstrom, Captain Whatever can look after himself.”
Ithan frowned deeply at Tristan Flynn from across the rickety table. Declan Emmet and his boyfriend, Marc, were chatting up a vendor at one of the Meat Market’s many stalls. The owl-headed Vanir was the third person they’d spoken to tonight, hoping to get news of their imprisoned friends—the twelfth lowlife they’d contacted in the past two days.
And Ithan was getting sick enough of their fruitless talking that he taunted Flynn, “Is this what Fae do? Leave their friends to suffer?”
“Fuck you, wolf,” Flynn said, but didn’t take his eyes off where Declan and Marc worked their charm. Even the usually unflappable Flynn now had bags beneath his eyes. He’d rarely smiled in the past few days. Seemed to be sleeping as little as Ithan was.
Yet despite all that, Ithan went for the throat. “So Ruhn’s life means more—”
“Ruhn is in a fucking dungeon being tortured by the Asteri,” Flynn snarled. “Tharion is here because he defected. He made that choice.”
“Technically, Ruhn also made a choice to go to the Eternal City—”
“I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that we’ve got a friend in a bad situation literally right there and we’re not even trying to help him.” Ithan pointed to the second level of the cavernous warehouse, the nondescript door that led into the Viper Queen’s private quarters.
“He was desperate—”
“We’re all fucking desperate,” Flynn murmured, eyeing a passing draki male carrying a sack of what smelled like elk meat. He sighed. “Seriously, Holstrom—go back to the house. Get some rest.” Again, Ithan noted the Fae lord’s exhausted face. “And,” Flynn added, “take that one with you.” Flynn nodded to the female sitting ramrod straight at a nearby table, alert and tense. The three fire sprites lay draped around her shoulders, dozing.
Right. The other source of Ithan’s frustration these days: playing babysitter for Sigrid Fendyr.
It would have been smarter to leave her back at the Fae males’ house—his house now, he supposed—but she’d refused. Had insisted on accompanying them.
Sigrid insisted on seeing and knowing everything. If he’d thought she’d crawl out of her mystic’s tank and cower, he’d thought wrong. She’d been a pain in his ass for two days now, wanting the complete history of the Fendyrs, their enemies, Ithan’s enemies … anything and everything that had happened while she’d been the Astronomer’s captive.
She hadn’t offered up much of her own past—not even a crumb about her father, whose history she hadn’t known until Ithan had filled her in, how the male had long ago been Prime Apparent until his sister, Sabine, had challenged him and won. Ithan had thought she’d killed him, but she’d apparently sent Sigrid’s father off into exile instead, where Sigrid had been born. Anything other than that was a complete mystery. Part of Ithan didn’t want to know what circumstances had been so dire as to make a Fendyr sell his heir—sell an Alpha—to the Astronomer.
That heir was only sitting quietly right now because she’d taken two steps into the Meat Market and sneered, Who’d want to shop at a disgusting place like this? Promptly making Declan and Marc’s work infinitely harder by earning the ire of any vendor within earshot.
The whisper network here put them all within earshot.
Ithan had no idea if that bond was from the years in the tank, or from a shared trauma, or just because they were females living in a very male house, but the four of them together were a headache.
“It’s too dangerous for her to be out in the open,” Flynn went on. “Anyone can report a sighting.”
“Yeah, and all it takes is one mention to Amelie or Sabine that a female wolf is in your company, and they’ll know. I’m shocked they haven’t run right over here already.”
“Sabine’s ruthless, but she’s not dumb. She wouldn’t start shit on the Viper Queen’s turf.”
“No, she’ll wait until we cross into the CBD and then ambush us.” The angels had long ignored anything that went on at street level in their district, too preoccupied with the comings and goings in their lofty towers.
Ithan glared at the male. Normally, he got along fine with Flynn. Liked him, even. But since Ruhn and Hunt and Bryce had disappeared …
Disappeared wasn’t the right word, at least for Ruhn and Hunt. They’d been taken prisoner, but Bryce … no one knew what had happened to her. Hence their presence here, seeking any intel they could get their hands on after Declan’s computer searches had been fruitless.
Any information on Bryce, on Ruhn, on Athalar … they were desperate for it. For a direction. A spark to light the way. Something that was better than sitting on their asses, not knowing.
Before he could let self-loathing sink its teeth into him, he rose and stalked over to where Sigrid sat monitoring the patrons of the Meat Market. She lifted brown eyes full of irritation and disdain to him. “This is a bad place.”
No shit, he refrained from saying. “It has it uses,” he hedged.
He’d gone straight to the Fae males’ house when he’d hauled Sigrid out of the Astronomer’s tank. They’d stayed there while Flynn and Declan pretended that all was normal in their world. While they continued working for the Aux, Prince Ruhn’s absence dismissed as a much-needed vacation.
Ithan had been waiting for soldiers to show up. Or assassins, sent by the Asteri or Sabine or the Astronomer.
Yet there had been no questions. No interrogations. No arrests. The Autumn King hadn’t even grilled Flynn and Dec, though he no doubt knew something had happened to his son. And that where Ruhn went, his two best friends went with him.
The public had no idea what had happened in the Eternal City. Granted, Ithan and the Fae warriors didn’t know much either, but they knew that their friends had gone into the Asteri stronghold and hadn’t come out again. The Asteri, the other powers at play … they knew that Ithan and the others had also been involved, even if they hadn’t been present. And yet they hadn’t made a move to punish them.
It wasn’t a comforting thought.
Sigrid angled her head with lupine curiosity. “Do you come here often?”
With anyone else, he might have made a joke about pickup lines, but Sigrid didn’t know or care about humor. He couldn’t blame her, after what she’d been through. So Ithan said, “When my work for the Aux or my pack demands it. But rarely, thank the gods.”
Her mouth tightened. “The Astronomer frequented this place.” That day Ithan had gone back to the Astronomer’s place to free her, he remembered, the ancient male had been over here buying some part for her tank.
Sigrid peered around. If she’d been in wolf form, he had no doubt her ears would have been flicking, picking up every sound. She replied without taking her focus off the teeming market, “A satyr, I heard him say once. Who sells salts and other things.”
Ithan glanced to the balcony level—to the shut green door where the satyr lived. He knew who she was talking about, thanks to all those past visits on behalf of the Aux. The lowlife peddled in all kinds of contraband.
Sigrid marked his shift in attention, tracing his line of sight. “That’s his place?”
Ithan gave a slow nod.
Sigrid shot to her feet, eyes gleaming with predatory intent.
“Where are you going?” Ithan demanded, stepping into her path.
“Are we done?” Malana asked, yawning.
“We’re terribly bored,” Sasa agreed, stretching her plump body along Sigrid’s neck. Rithi, the third sister, hummed in agreement.
Ignoring the sprites, Sigrid’s teeth flashed as she faced Ithan. “I want to see why this satyr thinks it appropriate to supply people like the Astrono—”
Despite that noble bloodline, Ithan grabbed her arm. “Do not go up there,” he snarled softly, fingers digging into her bony arm.
She looked down at his hand, then up at his face. Her nose crinkled with anger. “Or what?”
But he fought it, pushed against it—met it with his own dominance. The Fendyrs might have been Alphas for generations, but the Holstroms weren’t pushovers. They were Alphas, too—leaders and warriors in their own right.
Like Hel would he let this female push him around, Fendyr or no.
Flynn’s chair scraped the ground, but Ithan didn’t take his eyes from Sigrid as the Fae male stalked over and hissed, “What the fuck is wrong with you two? Go snarl at each other somewhere it won’t be noticed by everyone in the gods-damned Meat Market.”
Ithan bared his teeth at Sigrid. She bared hers right back.
Flynn sighed at the wooden ceiling. “Now’s not the time to go on a self-righteous warpath, sweetheart.”
Sigrid looked away from Ithan at last, though the wolf part of him knew she wasn’t conceding in their battle of wills. No, it was because she’d found another opponent to face. “Don’t speak to me like I’m some common female,” Sigrid raged at Flynn, who held up his hands. She whipped her head back to Ithan, “It’s within my rights—”
“You have no rights,” a male voice said. Marc. The leopard shifter had stalked up behind them with preternatural grace. Though he was in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, the male still had an air of sleek professionalism. “Since you technically don’t even exist. You’re a ghost, for all intents and purposes.”
Sigrid slowly turned, lip curling. “Did I ask for your opinion, cat?”
Normally, Ithan would have been glad to engage in some inter-shifter rivalry. But Marc was a good male—her disdain was utterly misplaced. Declan sauntered up beside his boyfriend and slung an arm around his broad shoulders. “I think it’s past someone’s bedtime.”
Ithan almost laughed at the nickname. Someone as intense as the female before him had no business being called Siggy.
“The next time they let us out of the house,” Sigrid said, bristling. “In days or weeks.”
“Let her come find me,” Sigrid said without an ounce of fear. “I’ve a score to settle.”
“Luna spare me,” Flynn muttered. Ithan could have sworn he caught the sprites nodding their agreement as they resettled themselves on Sigrid’s shoulders. The Fae lord turned to Declan and Marc. “Anything?”
It was Sigrid who said, “So what now?”
Only two days out of the tank and she was already assuming the mantle of leader, whether she knew it or not. A true Alpha, expecting to be answered … and obeyed.
Flynn blew out an exasperated breath and plopped onto his chair again. “We’re no closer than we were two days ago: Ruhn and Athalar are being held as traitors. That’s all we know.” That was all Marc’s inside source at the Eternal City had been able to glean. Nothing else.
“We have to break them out,” Flynn said, crossing his muscled arms. Rithi, on his left shoulder, made an identical gesture.
“Urd knows what shape they’re in,” Declan said bleakly. “We’d need medwitches on hand, probably.”
“You’ve got healing magic,” Flynn countered.
The thought of what those injuries might be to require such a team of medwitches made them all fall silent again. A heavy, miserable sort of quiet.
“And,” Declan challenged, head lifting, “where would we even go once we rescued them? There’s no one on Midgard who could hide or harbor us.”
“Flynn,” Marc warned with a glance at the teeming market. All those listening ears.
Ithan kept his voice low. “Tharion could get us onto that ship.”
None of them had seen or heard from the mer male since he’d left for Pangera. But they’d learned of his whereabouts thanks to a neon-green piece of paper taped to a lamppost, advertising an upcoming match in the Viper Queen’s fighting pit with Tharion as the main event. It was clear enough what had happened: the male had defected from the Blue Court and run straight here.
Declan shook his head. “And what then? We all live under the ocean forever?”
Ithan shifted on his feet. The wolf in him would go insane. No ability to run freely, to respond to the moon calling his name—
Sigrid flinched—a crack in her usually cocky exterior.
“Careful,” Ithan warned Flynn.
The sprites murmured their comfort to Sigrid, their flames now a deep raspberry. But Sigrid silently rose from her seat and walked toward a nearby vendor selling opals. The sweatshirt and pants Ithan had given her hung off her lean frame, swishing with each step.
She hadn’t known what shampoo was. Or soap. Or conditioner. Hadn’t even known what a shower was, and had refused to step into the stream until Ithan had done so himself, fully clothed, to demonstrate that it was safe. That it wasn’t some version of a tank.
She’d never slept in a proper bed before, either. Or at least not one that she remembered.
“Okay,” Declan said, drawing attention back to the matter at hand. “We’re clearly not learning anything by asking around, but let’s think about it … Ruhn has to be alive. The Asteri wouldn’t kill him right away—he’s too big of a political presence.”
“Yeah, so let’s go rescue him,” Flynn pushed. “Him and Athalar.”
“What about Bryce?” Declan asked so softly it was barely a whisper.
Ithan didn’t like that tone—not one bit. “What, you think Bryce bailed?” he demanded. “You think she’d willingly leave Ruhn and Hunt to the Asteri? Come on.”
Flynn leaned back in his chair. “You got a better guess about where she might be?”
Ithan restrained the urge to punch the Fae lord in the throat. Flynn was angry and hurting and scared, Ithan reminded himself. “Bryce doesn’t give up on the people she loves. If she went somewhere, it’s gotta be important.”
“Doesn’t matter where she went,” Flynn said. “All I know is we have to get Ruhn out before it’s too late.”
Ithan glanced at the second level again, that sunball captain part of his mind calculating, thinking it through …
“My parents and sister can go to Hel for all I care,” Flynn said.
“Well, I want my family to be safe,” Declan snapped. “If we’re going to rescue Ruhn and Athalar, we need to make sure no one else gets caught in the cross fire.”
Dec looked to Ithan, and Ithan shrugged. He had no one left to warn. Would anyone even miss him if he were gone? His duty was to protect the wolf at the stall across the way. Out of some stupid hope that she might … He had no idea. Challenge and defeat Sabine? Correct the dangerous path Sabine was leading the wolves down? Fill the void that Danika had left?
Sigrid was a loose cannon. An Alpha, yes, but she had no training. Her impulses were all over the place, too unpredictable. With time, she might learn the necessary skills, but time wasn’t their ally these days.
So Ithan said, “You want to save Ruhn and Athalar? That mer ship is the only way we can cross the ocean unnoticed. Maybe the mer on it will have some idea how to break them out. They might even help us if we’re lucky.” He pointed to the second level. “Tharion’s our way in.”
“Two birds, one stone.”
“Tharion can’t leave,” Marc mused, “but nothing’s stopping him from talking to us. Maybe he can provide contact information.”
“Only one way to find out,” Ithan said.
“And be her escort,” Dec added.
“Not it,” Flynn and Ithan said at the same moment.
Declan whipped his head to Marc and said, “Not it,” before the leopard could grasp what was going on.
Marc rubbed his temples. “Remind me how it is that the three of you are considered some of the most feared warriors in this city?”
Dec just kissed his cheek.
Ithan opened his mouth, but … fine. With a mocking smile to the males, he walked over to retrieve the Alpha. And spare the opal dealer from her endless questions.
How do you know it bestows luck or love or joy? What do the colors have to do with anything? What proof do you have that these work?
Ithan put a hand on Sigrid’s elbow to alert her of his presence, but again she flinched. Ithan backed away a step, hands up as the opal dealer watched warily. “Sorry.”
Ithan motioned her to walk back toward the males, and she fell into step beside him, a healthy distance away. Most wolves needed touch—craved it. Had the instinct been robbed from her by those years in the tank?
It made it hard to be annoyed with her when he thought about it like that.
“How do you get used to it?” Sigrid asked over the hiss of cooking meat and bartering shoppers. Behind her, the sprites were still hovering by the array of opals, exclaiming over the stones. How the three sprites had adapted so quickly to this strange, open world was beyond him. They’d been trapped by the Astronomer, too, locked in his rings.
Ithan asked, “Used to what?”
He blinked. “I, ah …” He couldn’t imagine himself in her shoes, suddenly a body of flesh and blood and bone after the weightless years in the isolation tank. “You just need time.”
Her eyes lowered. It didn’t seem to be the answer she was looking for.
“Sigrid,” he said again. “You’re … you’re doing great.”
“That’s the name Sasa chose for you,” Ithan said, offering a friendly smile.
“Why do I need a name? I’ve lived this long without one.”
“An Alpha should have one. A person should have one. The Astronomer let you take the Drop—you’ll be alive for centuries.”
“I don’t want to talk about the Drop.” Her voice was flat, dead.
“Neither do I.” He would have liked some answers about what she’d experienced, but not now. Not when they’d reached the three waiting males. The sprites, finally emerging from the depths of the opal stall, raced over, three plumes of flame streaming across the bone-dry warehouse.
“So, do we go knock?” Flynn asked, pointing to the metal, vault-like door at the top of the stairs. The entrance to the Viper Queen’s private lair.
Marc caught Ithan’s eye. Had he explained to Sigrid that Marc would escort her home?
Ithan cringed. No, he hadn’t.
Marc glared. Coward, the leopard’s look seemed to say. But he tensed, going still. “Stay quiet.”
Marc’s tawny eyes scanned the warehouse, the skylights. He sniffed.
Ithan did the same. As shifters, their senses were sharper than those of the Fae.
From the doorway behind them, the blend of smells from the open night leaked in, the reek of the sewers beyond …
And the scent of converging wolves.