House of Flame and Shadow: Part 2 – Chapter 40

Hunt leaned against the wall of the massive tactical room on the Depth Charger, arms crossed. Tharion and Baxian flanked him, the former feigning nonchalance, the latter the portrait of menace.

Only a conference table occupied the room, and though they’d been told to take a seat upon walking in five minutes ago, they all remained standing.

Hunt ran through all the things he needed to say. The Ocean Queen had told Sendes that she wanted Tharion presented to her, but Hunt knew he wouldn’t get a better opportunity to ask her his questions. Assuming Tharion wasn’t turned into a bloody pulp before Hunt could start talking. That would throw a wrench in his plans.

If Tharion was nervous, the mer didn’t show it. He just removed invisible flecks of lint from his aquatic suit and glanced at the digital clock on the far wall every now and then. But Hunt had noted his dead-eyed stare. A male prepared to face his end. Who might think he deserved it.

Power shuddered through the ship, like an undersea earthquake. As menacing and deadly as a tsunami. Ancient and cold as the bottom of an oceanic trench.

“She’s here,” Tharion murmured.

Baxian’s dark wings tucked in tighter, and he glanced sidelong at Hunt. “You ever meet the Ocean Queen?”

“Nope,” Hunt said, folding in his own wings. He wished he had a weapon—any weapon. Even with his lightning and brute strength, there was something comforting in the weight of a gun or sword at his side. Though neither would be helpful against the being who’d arrived on the ship. “Never even seen her. You?”

Baxian ran a hand over his tightly curled black hair. “No. Ketos?”

“No,” was the mer’s only reply, his eyes again fixed on the clock.

It was no surprise that even Tharion hadn’t met the Ocean Queen. She was more of an enigma than the River Queen, rumored to have been born of Ogenas herself. The daughter of a goddess, who could likely bring the force of this entire ocean crashing down upon this ship and—

The door clicked open. Sendes appeared on the threshold and announced, “Her Depthless Majesty, the Ocean Queen.” The commander stepped aside, bowing at the waist as a tiny female entered behind her.

Hunt blinked. Even Tharion seemed to be restraining his shock, his breath shallow.

Her luscious body measured barely more than four feet. Her skin was as pale as the belly of a fish; her angular eyes as dark as a shark’s. Her heart-shaped face was neither pretty nor plain, and the rosebud-shaped lips were the reddish pink of a snapper. She walked with a strange sort of lightness—like she was unused to being on solid ground—and the gown of kelp and sea fans she wore trailed behind her, the shells and coral in the train tinkling as she moved.

Pushing off the wall, the three of them followed Sendes’s lead and bowed.

Hunt watched the Ocean Queen as he did so, though, and noted the slow sweep of her eyes over them. She only moved her eyes—nothing else. An apex predator assessing her prey.

When she’d decided they had suitably worshipped her, she stalked to the head of the table. Each step left behind a wet footprint on the tiles, though she appeared entirely dry. Barnacles adorned some strands of her hair like beads.

“Sit,” she ordered, voice deep and rolling and utterly chilling.

Wings rustled and chairs groaned as they obeyed. Hunt could only wonder if he’d pissed off Urd today as he realized he had claimed the chair nearest to the head of the table—to the monarch standing there. Baxian sat on his other side, and Tharion, the worm, had wriggled his way to the seat farthest away—within leaping distance of the door.

Adjusting his wings around the chair back, Hunt caught Baxian’s eye. The Helhound gave him a look that pretty much said: Well, I’m shitting my pants.

Hunt glanced pointedly at his own chair, as if to say, You’re not the one sitting closest to her.

The queen surveyed them with ageless, pitiless eyes.

Hunt couldn’t help his swallow. He’d never felt so small, so insignificant. Even in front of the Asteri, he’d remembered that he was a warrior, and a damned good one, and might at least make a last stand against them. But before this female … He saw it in her eyes, sensed it in his blood: one thought from her, and she’d wipe him from existence with a tidal wave of power.

Sendes cleared her throat and said, voice shaking, “May I present Hunt Athalar, Baxian Argos, and Tharion Ketos.”

“Our guests from Valbara,” the Ocean Queen acknowledged. Squalls howled in her words, even as her tone remained mild. Hunt’s entire body tensed.

As fast as a storm sweeping in over the sea, she seemed to grow—no, she was growing, taller and taller, until she towered over Sendes, nearly Hunt’s own height.

Her power surged, filling the room, dragging their meager souls down into its airless heart like a maelstrom. The Ocean Queen slid her attention to Tharion and said with knee-trembling menace, “You have brought a heap of trouble to my doorstep.”

Ruhn tried and failed to process what he’d heard. Lidia had … children?

A female voice behind them said, “Miss Cervos.”

Lidia didn’t turn. Just stared at the boys in the classroom.

But Ruhn looked, and found a full-bodied, dark-skinned mer female with a kind face standing there. She said to Ruhn, “I’m Director Kagani, the head of this school.”

Lidia’s fingers contracted on the glass of the door’s window. “Can I meet them?” The question was very, very quiet. Broken.

Kagani sighed softly. “I think it would be disruptive, and too public, for them to be pulled out of class right now.”

Lidia finally turned at that, teeth flashing. “I want to meet my children.”

Ruhn’s mind spun at her expression. Rage and pain and a mother’s unbreaking ferocity.

“I know you do,” Kagani said with unflappable calm. “But it would be best if we talk in my office after school. It’s right down the hall.”

The Hind didn’t so much as move.

“Consider what is best for them, Lidia,” Kagani encouraged. “I understand, I truly do—I’m a mother, myself. If I had …” Her throat worked. “I would want the same if I had made your choices. But I’m also an educator, and an advocate for these children. Please put the twins first today. Just as you have every day for the past fifteen years.”

Lidia scanned the female’s face with an openness Ruhn had never seen from her. She looked over a shoulder, back into the classroom. The blond boy now stood at his desk, staring at her with wide eyes. The dark-haired one watched carefully, but remained seated.

So much of Lidia was written all over their features. When they were away from her, it was unlikely that anyone would draw a connection, but it was impossible to miss the relation when seeing them in close proximity.

“All right,” Lidia whispered, lowering her hand from the window. “All right.”

Kagani let out a small sigh of relief. “Why don’t you go get cleaned up. School isn’t out for another five hours, so take your time. Have some food. Maybe get cleared by your medwitch.” A nod to the half-healed holes in Lidia’s arm where she’d torn out her IV.

“All right,” Lidia said a third time, and stepped away. As if Ruhn and Flynn didn’t exist.

Director Kagani added gently, “I’ll contact Brann and Actaeon’s adoptive parents to see if they can come in, too.”

Lidia nodded silently, and kept walking.

Ruhn glanced to Flynn, whose brows were high. Ruhn raised his own brows in silent agreement.

A sudden movement snared his attention and Ruhn whirled toward Lidia, blindly reaching for her.

But he wasn’t swift enough to catch her as she fainted, crumpling to the floor.

Tharion had never met anyone as petrifying and alluring as the Ocean Queen. Never wanted to cry and laugh and scream at the same time … though he was leaning toward the latter as the queen bestowed the full force of her displeasure upon him.

“Tharion Ketos.” She spoke his name like it left a foul taste in her mouth. “How is it that you have not one, but two queens demanding your head?”

He winced and put forth his brightest charm—his first and best line of defense. “I tend to have that effect on females?”

The monarch didn’t smile, but he could have sworn Sendes, stationed in the doorway, was trying not to.

The Ocean Queen folded her hands in front of her curved, soft belly. “I have received reports that the Viper Queen of Lunathion has put a bounty on your head for three million gold marks.” Athalar, the bastard, let out a low whistle. “Five million if you’re alive, so she can punish you herself.”

Tharion choked on a breath. “For what?” He added hastily, “Your Majesty.”

“I don’t know the particulars, nor do I care to,” the Ocean Queen said, pearlescent teeth flashing behind her vivid red lips. “But I believe it has something to do with your presence bringing certain individuals who then caused untold damage to her property. She holds you responsible.”

He was so, so fucked.

“But that is not the end of my problems,” the queen went on. He could have sworn those glistening teeth sharpened. “My so-called sister in the Istros is demanding your return as well. She is threatening war upon me—me—if you are not handed over. Presumably to be executed.”

He could scarcely get a breath down. “Please,” he whispered, “my parents—”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about your family if I were you,” the Ocean Queen seethed. Her teeth were now hooked and razor-like. Pure shark. “The River Queen and Viper Queen only want you. I would like one good reason why I shouldn’t hand you over—let them squabble over your carcass.”

He scrambled for some way to disarm the moment, to win her, but came up empty. His unnaturally deep pool of luck had finally and officially run dry—

“You hand him over,” a female voice drawled from the open doorway, “and you’ll have a third queen pissed at you.”

Tharion’s stomach bottomed out.

Bryce Quinlan swept through the doorway and winked at the Ocean Queen. “Tharion serves me.”


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