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House of Sky and Breath: Part 2 – Chapter 25

Tharion warily watched the two sobeks lounging at his queen’s feet, their scaly, powerful bodies draped over the dais steps. With their shut eyes, only the bubbles drifting from their long snouts revealed they lived—and were capable of snapping his arm off in one swift bite.

The River Queen’s throne had been carved into a towering mountain of river corals rising from the rocky floor. Lunathion lay close enough to the coast that the water in this part of the Istros had plenty of salt to support the vibrant corals, as well as the bouquets of anemones, waving lace sea fans, and the occasional rainbow ribbons of iris eels all adorning the mount around and above her. He had a feeling her magic had also created a good chunk of it.

Tail pumping against the strong current that flowed past, Tharion bowed his head. “Your Majesty.” At this point, the effort against the current was second nature, but he knew she’d selected this location for her throne so that any person appearing before her would be a bit off-kilter—and perhaps less guarded as a result. “You summoned me?”

“It has come to my attention,” his queen said, her dark hair drifting above her, “that you asked my daughter on a date.”

Tharion focused on keeping his tail moving, holding him in place. “Yes. I thought she’d enjoy it.”

“You asked her on a date Above. Above!”

Tharion lifted his chin, hands clasped behind his back. A subservient, vulnerable position that he knew his queen preferred, exposing the entirety of his chest to her. His heart lay in range of the jagged sea-glass knife resting on the arm of her throne, or the beasts drowsing at her feet. She had the power to destroy him in an instant, but he knew she liked the feel of the kill.

He’d never understood it, until he’d found his sister’s murderer and opted to tear the panther shifter apart with his bare hands.

“I only meant to please her,” Tharion said.

But the River Queen’s fingers dug into the carved arms of her throne. “You know how overwhelmed she becomes. She is too fragile for such things.”

Tharion sucked in a deep breath through his gills. Exhaled it before saying, “She handled herself well at the Summit.” A half-lie. She’d done absolutely nothing of value at the Summit, but at least she hadn’t been cowering the whole time.

Anemones shrank into themselves, a swift warning of his queen’s ire before she said, “That was in an organized, guarded place. Lunathion is a wild forest of distraction and pleasure. It will devour her whole.” The iris eels sensed her tone and darted into the cracks and crevices around the throne.

“I apologize for any distress the suggestion caused you or her.” He didn’t dare so much as curl his fingers into a fist.

The queen studied him with the concentration of one of the sobeks at her feet, when the beasts were poised to strike. “What of your progress with the Renast boy?”

“I have good reason to believe he’s just arrived in this city. I have my people looking for him.” They hadn’t found any new bodies today—for better or worse. He could only pray it didn’t mean Pippa Spetsos had gotten her hands on the boy.

“I want that boy at the Blue Court the moment he’s found.”

Pippa or the River Queen. Above or Beneath. Emile Renast’s options were limited.

Once the kid was down here, he wouldn’t get back Above unless the River Queen wished it. Or the Asteri dispatched one of their elite aquatic units to drag him out. But that would mean they’d learned of the River Queen’s betrayal.

But Tharion only nodded. As he had always done. As he would always do. “We’ll apprehend Emile soon.”

“Before Ophion.”

“Yes.” He didn’t dare ask why she was bothering with any of it. From the moment she’d heard the rumors about the boy who could bring down those Omegas with his power-draining magic, she’d wanted Emile. She didn’t share her reasons. She never did.

“And before any other of the River Courts.”

Tharion lifted his head at that. “You think they know about Emile, too?”

“The currents whispered to me about it. I don’t see why my sisters wouldn’t hear similar murmurings from the water.”

The queens of Valbara’s four great rivers, the Istros, the Melanthos, the Niveus, and the Rubellus—the Blue, the Black, the White, and the Red, respectively—had long been rivals: all mighty and gifted with magic. All vain and ancient and bored.

While Tharion might not be privy to his queen’s most intimate plans, he could only assume she wanted the boy for the same reason Pippa Spetsos did: to use him as a weapon. One that could be used to get the queens of the Black, White, and Red Courts to yield. With the boy in her thrall, she could potentially use him to siphon their powers, to turn all that elemental energy against them and expand her influence.

But if they knew of Emile as well, then did they already scheme, thinking to take the Blue Court? And if the Queen of the Red Court wished to overthrow his queen, to use Emile’s gifts to drain her of power … would he fight it?

Years ago, he would have said Hel yes.

But now …

Tharion lifted his face toward the surface. That distant, beckoning ribbon of light.

He found her studying him again. As if she could hear every thought in his mind. The sobek at her left cracked open an eye, revealing a slitted pupil amid green-marbled citrine.

His queen asked, “Are things so wonderful Above that you resent your time Beneath?”

Tharion kept his face neutral, kept swishing his fins with an idle grace. “Can’t both realms be wonderful?”

The second sobek opened an eye as well. Would they be opening their jaws next?

They ate anything and everything. Fresh meat, trash, and, perhaps most important, the bodies of the shameful dead. Having one’s black boat overturned on its way to the Bone Quarter was the deepest sort of humiliation and judgment: a soul deemed unworthy of entering the holy resting place, its corpse given over to the river beasts to devour.

But Tharion kept his hands clasped behind him, kept his chest exposed, ready to be shredded apart. Let her see his utter subservience to her power.

His queen only said, “Keep searching for the boy. Report as soon as you hear anything new.”

He bowed his head. “Of course.” He swished his fin, readying to swim off the moment she gave the dismissal.

But the River Queen said, “And Tharion?”

He couldn’t stop his swallow at the smooth, casual tone. “Yes, my queen?”

Her full lips curved into a smile. So much like the beasts at her feet. “Before you invite my daughter on a date Above again, I think you should witness firsthand the disrespect those Above show the citizens of the Beneath.”

The River Queen picked her punishments well. Tharion would give her that.

Swimming along the Old Square’s section of the quay an hour later, he kept his head down as he speared trash.

He was her Captain of Intelligence. How many of his people had already noticed him here or heard about this? He stabbed a discarded, half-decayed pizza box. It fell into three pieces before he could tuck it into the giant bag drifting behind him on the current.

The River Queen wanted Emile badly, Pippa Spetsos was leaving a trail of bodies in her hunt for the kid, and yet this was his queen’s priority for him?

Water splashed twenty feet above, and Tharion lifted his head to find an empty beer bottle filling—and then drifting down. Through the surface, he could just make out a blond female laughing at him.

She’d tried to fucking hit him with that bottle. Tharion rallied his magic, smiling to himself as a plume of water showered the female, earning a host of shrieks and growls from those around her.

Ten more bottles came flying down at him.

Tharion sighed, bubbles flowing from his lips. Captain Whatever, indeed.

The River Queen fancied herself a benevolent ruler who wanted the best for her people, yet she treated her subjects as harshly as any Asteri. Tharion wended between the mussel-crusted pillars of a dock, various crabs and bottom-scavengers watching him from the shadows.

Something had to change. In this world, in the hierarchies. Not only in the way Ophion wanted, but … this imbalance of power across all Houses.

Tharion pried a bike tire—for fuck’s sake—from between two rocks, muscles groaning. A giant blue crab scuttled over, waving its claws in reprimand. Mine! it seemed to shout. Tharion backed off, gesturing to the trash. Have at it, he conveyed with a wave of his hand, and with a powerful thrust of his tail, swam farther along the quay.

The glowing firstlights cast ripples on the surface. It was like swimming through gold.

Something had to change. For him, at least.

Ruhn laid the Starsword on his father’s desk as the Autumn King stalked through the study doors.

The top buttons of his father’s black shirt were undone, his ordinarily smooth red hair a bit out of place. Like someone had been running their hands through it. Ruhn shuddered.

His father eyed the sword. “What is so important that you interrupted my afternoon meeting?”

“Is that what you’re calling it these days?”

His father threw him an admonishing glance as he slid into his desk chair, surveying the bare Starsword. “You smell like trash.”

“Thanks. It’s a new cologne I’m trying out.” Considering the insanity of the last hour, it was a miracle he could even joke right then.

Agent Daybright had been in his mind, screaming at him to wake up. That was all he’d known before he’d started puking water and the gods knew what else—he certainly didn’t want to know—on the Aux training center floor.

Cormac had left by the time Ruhn mastered himself, apparently wanting to quickly search the area for any hint of Emile or Sofie. Bryce had still been in shock when Ruhn managed to ask what the fuck had happened.

But she’d told him enough—then kicked the Starsword toward him in the empty training hall and left. Which was when he’d rushed over here.

Flame sparked at his father’s fingers—the first warning of his impatience. So Ruhn asked, “What’s the lore behind this sword?”

His father arched a brow. “You’ve been its bearer for decades. Now you want to know its history?”

Ruhn shrugged. His head still pounded from the blow the Reapers had given him; his stomach churned like he’d been drinking all night. “Does it have any special powers? Weird gifts?”

The Autumn King swept a cold look over Ruhn, from his waterlogged boots to his half-shaved head, the longer hair scraggly thanks to the sewer trip. “Something has happened.”

“Some Reapers tried to jump me, and the sword … reacted.”

A light way of putting it. Had Bryce stayed away from the sword all these years because she somehow sensed that in her hand, it would unleash horrors?

He didn’t want to know what his father would do with the truth. A sword that could kill the unkillable. How many rulers in Midgard would scheme and murder to attain it? Starting with his father and ending with the Asteri.

Maybe they’d get lucky and the information would be contained to the Reapers. But the Under-King …

His father stilled. “How did the sword react?”

“Shouldn’t a father ask if his son is all right? And why the Reapers attacked?”

“You appear unharmed. And I assume you did something to offend them.”

“Thanks for your vote of confidence.”

“Did you?”


“How did the sword react in the presence of the Reapers?”

“It glowed. They ran from it.” It was only a half-lie. “Any idea why?”

“They are already dead. Blades hold no threat to them.”

“Yeah, well … they freaked.”

His father reached for the black blade but halted, remembering himself. It wasn’t his blade to touch.

Ruhn reined in his smirk of satisfaction. But his father watched the various globes and solar system models across his office for a long moment.

Ruhn spied their own solar system in the center of it all. Seven planets around a massive star. Seven Asteri—technically six now—to rule Midgard. Seven Princes of Hel to challenge them.

Seven Gates in this city through which Hel had tried to invade this spring.

Seven and seven and seven and seven—always that holy number. Always—

“It’s an ancient sword,” the Autumn King said at last, drawing Ruhn from his wandering thoughts, “from another world. Made from the metal of a fallen star—a meteorite. This sword exists beyond our planet’s laws. Perhaps the Reapers sensed that and shied away.”

The Reapers had learned precisely how outside the planet’s laws the sword was. It could fucking kill them.

Ruhn opened his mouth, but his father sniffed him again. Frowned. “And when were you going to tell me your sister was involved in this incident? She’s even more reckless than you.”

Ruhn stifled the spike of anger in his gut. “Only fit for breeding, right?”

“She should consider herself lucky I believe her valuable enough for that.”

“You should consider yourself lucky that she didn’t come in here to kick your ass for the betrothal to Cormac.”

His father stalked to the elegant wood liquor cabinet behind his desk and pulled out a crystal decanter of what looked and smelled like whiskey. “Oh, I’ve been waiting for days now.” He poured himself a glass, not bothering to offer Ruhn any, and knocked it back. “I suppose you convinced her not to.”

“She decided all on her own that you weren’t worth the effort.”

His father’s eyes simmered as he set the glass and decanter on the edge of his desk. “If that sword is acting up,” the Autumn King said, ignoring his barb, “I’d suggest keeping it far from your sister.”

Too late. “I offered it to her already. She didn’t want it. I don’t think she’s interested in your politics.”

But she had run into a sewer teeming with Reapers after him. Ruhn’s heart squeezed tight.

His father poured himself another glass of whiskey. The only sign that something about this conversation rattled him. But the Autumn King’s voice was bland as he said, “In ancient times, Starborn rivals would slit each other’s throats. Even those of the children. She is now more powerful than you and I are, as you like to remind me.”

Ruhn resisted the urge to ask whether that had played any part in his father’s slaying of the last Starborn heir. “Are you telling me to kill Bryce?”

His father sipped from the whiskey this time before replying, “If you had any backbone, you would have done it the moment you learned she was Starborn. Now what are you?” Another sip before he said mildly, “A second-rate prince who only possesses the sword because she allows you to have it.”

“Pitting us against each other won’t work.” But those words—second-rate prince—those gouged something deep in him. “Bryce and I are good.”

The Autumn King drained the glass. “Power attracts power. It is her fate to be tied to a powerful male to match her own strength. I would rather not learn what comes of her union with the Umbra Mortis.”

“So you betrothed her to Cormac to avoid that?”

“To consolidate that power for the Fae.”

Ruhn slowly picked up the Starsword. Refused to meet his father’s stare while he sheathed it down his back. “So this is what being king is all about? That old shit about keeping friends close and enemies closer?”

“It remains to be seen whether your sister is an enemy to the Fae.”

“I think the burden of that’s on you. Overstepping your authority doesn’t help.”

His father returned the crystal decanter to the cabinet. “I am a King of the Fae. My word is law. I cannot overstep my authority—it has no limits.”

“Maybe it should.” The words were out before Ruhn could think.

His father went still in a way that always promised pain. “And who will impose them?”

“The Governor.”

“That doe-eyed angel?” A mirthless laugh. “The Asteri knew what they were doing in appointing a lamb to rule a city of predators.”

“Maybe, but I bet the Asteri would agree that there are limits to your power.”

“Why don’t you ask them, then, Prince?” He smiled slowly, cruelly. “Maybe they’ll make you king instead.”

Ruhn knew his answer would mean his life or death. So he shrugged again, nonchalant as always, and aimed for the door. “Maybe they’ll find a way to make you live forever. I sure as fuck have no interest in the job.”

He didn’t dare to look back before he left.


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