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House of Sky and Breath: Part 2 – Chapter 34

“How do I look?” Celestina whispered to Hunt as they stood in front of the desk in her private study. Isaiah flanked her other side, Naomi to his left, Baxian to Hunt’s right. Baxian had barely done more than nod to Hunt when he’d entered.

Hunt had taken the flight over here to soothe his nerves, his residual rage and awe at what he and Bryce had done. What they’d learned. By the time he’d alighted on the landing veranda, his face had become impassive once more. The mask of the Umbra Mortis.

It cracked a little, however, upon seeing Pollux a step away from Naomi. Grinning with feral, anticipatory delight.

This was a reunion from Hel. The Hind and the Hammer, back together once more. Never mind the Harpy and the Helhound—things had always revolved around Pollux and Lidia, their twin shriveled souls, and no one else. Thank the gods the Hawk had stayed behind in Pangera.

Hunt murmured to Celestina, “You look like a female about to enter an arranged mating.” He was amazed his words had come out so casually, considering how his morning had gone.

The Archangel, clad in dawn-soft pink, gold at her wrists and ears, threw him a sad, What can you do? kind of smile.

Hunt, despite himself, added, “But you do look beautiful.”

Her smile gentled, light brown eyes with them. “Thank you. And thank you for coming in on your day off.” She squeezed his hand, her fingers surprisingly clammy. She was truly nervous.

Down the hall, the elevator doors pinged. Celestina’s fingers tightened on Hunt’s before letting go. He could have sworn hers were shaking.

So Hunt said, “It’s no problem at all. I’ll be right here all night. You need to bail, just give me a signal—tug on your earring, maybe—and I’ll make up some excuse.”

Celestina smiled up at him, squaring her shoulders. “You’re a good male, Hunt.”

He wasn’t so sure of that. Wasn’t so sure he hadn’t offered only to make her like him so that when shit hit the fan, if Baxian or the Hind or anyone suggested he and Quinlan were up to anything shady, she’d give him the benefit of the doubt. But he thanked her all the same.

The meeting between Ephraim and Celestina was as stiff and awkward as Hunt had expected.

Ephraim was handsome, as so many of the Archangels were: black hair cut close to his head in a warrior-like fashion, light brown skin that radiated health and vitality, and dark eyes that noted every person in the room, like a soldier assessing a battlefield.

But his smile was genuine as he looked upon Celestina, who strode toward him with outstretched hands.

“My friend,” she said, peering up into his face. As if seeing it for the first time.

Ephraim smiled, white teeth straight and perfect. “My mate.”

She ducked her head right at the moment he went in to kiss her cheek, and Hunt reined in his cringe as Ephraim’s lips met the side of her head. Celestina jolted back, realizing the miscommunication, that people were witnessing this, and—

Isaiah, gods bless him, stepped forward, a fist on his heart. “Your Grace. I welcome you and your triarii.” Ephraim had only brought Sandriel’s triarii with him, Hunt realized. Had left his original members back in Pangera with the Hawk.

Ephraim recovered from the awkward kiss and tucked his blindingly white wings close to his toned, powerful body. “I thank you for your welcome, Commander Tiberian. And hope that your triarii will welcome mine as you so warmly did.”

Hunt at last glanced at the Hind, standing a few feet behind Ephraim, and then at Pollux, staring at her with wolfish intensity from across the room. The Hind’s golden eyes simmered, focused wholly on her lover. As if she were waiting for the go-ahead to jump his bones.

“Yuck,” Naomi muttered, and Hunt suppressed his smile.

Celestina seemed to be searching for something to say, so Hunt spared her and said, “We shall treat your triarii as our brothers and sisters.” The Harpy sneered at the last word. Hunt’s lightning sparked in answer. “For however long they remain here.” For however long I let you live, you fucking psychopath.

Celestina recovered enough to say, “Their alliance shall be only one of the many successes for our mating.”

Ephraim voiced his agreement, even as he raked his stare over his mate once more. Approval shone there, but Celestina … Her throat bobbed.

She’d … been with a male, hadn’t she? Come to think of it, Hunt didn’t even know if she preferred males. Had the Asteri considered that? Would they care what her preferences were, what her experience was, before throwing her into bed with Ephraim?

Baxian’s eyes remained on the Harpy and the Hind, cold and watchful. He didn’t seem particularly pleased to see them.

“I have some refreshments prepared,” Celestina said, gesturing to the tables against the wall of windows. “Come, let us drink to this happy occasion.”

Bryce had just finished telling Ruhn and Ithan what had gone down in the Bone Quarter—both of them looking as sick as Tharion had to hear about the real fate of the dead—when someone knocked on the door.

“So Connor,” Ithan was saying, rubbing his face. “He’s … They fed his soul into the Gate to become firstlight? Secondlight? Whatever.”

Bryce wrung her hands. “It seems like they’d wait until we’re all dust, and even our descendants have forgotten him, but considering how much we pissed off the Under-King, I feel like there’s a chance he might … move Connor up the list.”

“I need to know,” Ithan said. “I need to fucking know.”

Bryce’s throat ached. “I do, too. We’ll try to find out.”

Tharion asked, “But what can be done to help him—any of them?”

Silence fell. The knock on the door came again, and Bryce sighed. “We’ll figure that out, too.”

Ruhn toyed with one of the hoops through his left ear. “Is there someone we should … tell?”

Bryce unlocked the door. “The Asteri undoubtedly know about it and don’t care. They’ll say it’s our civic duty to give back whatever power we can.”

Ithan shook his head, looking toward the window.

Ruhn said, “We have to think carefully about this. Was the Prince of the Pit pushing you and Athalar to go there by sending those Reapers? Or by having his Reapers hint that Emile and Sofie might be hiding there? Why? To—activate your combined powers with that Gate trick? He couldn’t have known that would happen. We have to think about how the Asteri would retaliate if this is something they want kept under wraps. And what they’d do if we do indeed find and harbor Emile and Sofie.”

“We’ll game it out,” Bryce said, and finally opened the door.

A hand locked around her throat, crushing the air from her. “You little cunt,” Sabine Fendyr hissed.

Ruhn should have considered who might need to knock on the front door. Instead, he’d been so focused on the truth Bryce had revealed about their lives—and afterlives—that he’d let her open it without checking.

Sabine hurled Bryce across the room, hard enough that she slammed into the side of the sectional, scooting the behemoth couch back by an inch.

Ruhn was up instantly, gun aimed at the Alpha. Behind him, Tharion helped Bryce to her feet. Sabine’s attention remained fixed on Bryce as she said, “What game are you playing, Princess?” That title was clearly what had kept Sabine from ripping out Bryce’s throat.

Bryce’s brows lowered, but Ithan stepped to Ruhn’s side, violence gleaming in his eyes. “What the Hel are you talking about?”

Sabine bristled, but she didn’t remove her focus from Bryce as she continued, “You just can’t stay out of wolf business, can you?”

Bryce said coolly, “Wolf business?”

Sabine pointed a clawed finger toward Ithan. “He was exiled. And yet you decided to harbor him. No doubt part of some plan of yours to rob me of my birthright.”

“So the big bad wolf came all the way here to yell at me about it?”

“The big bad wolf,” Sabine seethed, “came all the way here to remind you that no matter what my father might have said, you are no wolf.” She sneered at Ithan. “And neither is he. So stay the fuck out of wolf affairs.”

Ithan let out a low growl, but pain seemed to ripple beneath it.

Ruhn snarled, “You want to talk, Sabine, then sit the fuck down like an adult.” At his side, he was vaguely aware of Bryce thumbing in a message on her phone.

Ithan squared his shoulders. “Bryce isn’t harboring me. Perry dropped me here.”

“Perry’s a moon-eyed fool,” Sabine spat.

Bryce angled her head, though. “What about this arrangement, exactly, bothers you, Sabine?” The way her voice had iced over … Fuck, she sounded exactly like their father.

Ithan said, “Bryce has nothing to do with you and me, Sabine. Leave her out of it.”

Sabine pivoted toward him, bristling. “You’re a disgrace and a traitor, Holstrom. A spineless waste, if this is the company you choose to keep. Your brother would be ashamed.”

Ithan snapped, “My brother would tell me good fucking riddance to you.”

Sabine snarled, the sound pure command. “You might be exiled, but you still obey me.”

Ithan shuddered, but refused to back down.

Tharion stepped forward. “You want to throw down with Holstrom, Sabine, go ahead. I’ll stand as witness.”

Ithan would lose. And Sabine would gut him so thoroughly there would be no hope of recovery. He’d wind up with his brother, his soul served up to the Under-King and the Dead Gate on a silver platter.

Ruhn braced himself—and realized he had no idea what to do.

Celestina should have laid out some hard alcohol rather than rosé. Hunt wasn’t nearly drunk enough to deal with having to keep smiling in a room full of his enemies. To deal with watching two people who had no choice but to make an arranged mating work somehow. They wouldn’t officially be mated until the party next month, but their life together was already beginning.

Beside him, at the doors to the private veranda off Celestina’s study, Isaiah knocked back his pale pink wine and muttered, “What a clusterfuck.”

“I feel bad for her,” Naomi said on Isaiah’s other side.

Hunt grunted his agreement, watching Celestina and Ephraim attempt to make small talk across the room. Beyond them, the Harpy seemed content to sneer at Hunt the whole night. Baxian lurked by the door to the hall. Pollux and Lidia talked near the Harpy with bent heads.

Naomi followed the direction of his gaze. “There’s a terrifying match.”

Hunt chuckled. “Yeah.” His phone buzzed, and he fished it out of his pocket to see that a text had arrived from Bryce Sucks My Dick Like a Champ.

Hunt choked, scrambling to switch screens as Isaiah peered over his shoulder and laughed. “I assume you didn’t put that name in there.”

“No,” Hunt hissed. He’d punish her thoroughly for that one. After he finally got to fuck her. He hadn’t forgotten that he was supposed to be doing exactly that right now. That he’d made dinner and hotel reservations that had been canceled for this awkward-ass shit. Hunt explained to Isaiah, “It’s this stupid running joke we have.”

“A joke, hmmm?” Isaiah’s eyes danced with delight, and he clapped Hunt on the shoulder. “I’m happy for you.”

Hunt smiled to himself, opening up her message, trying not to look at the name she’d put in and think about how accurate it was. “Thanks.” But his smile faded as he read the message.

Sabine here.

Hunt’s heartbeat kicked up a notch. Isaiah read the message and murmured, “Go.”

“What about this?” Hunt jerked his chin at Celestina and Ephraim across the room.

“Go,” Isaiah urged. “You need backup?”

He shouldn’t, but Bryce’s message had been so vague, and—shit. “You can’t come with me. It’ll be too obvious.” He turned to Naomi, but she’d drifted off toward the bar cart again. If he grabbed her, it’d draw everyone’s attention. He scanned the space.

Baxian looked right at him, reading the tension on his face, his body. Fucker. Now someone would know he’d left—

Isaiah sensed it, noted it. “I’ll deal with that,” his friend murmured, and sauntered off toward the black-winged angel. He said something to Baxian that had them both pivoting away from Hunt.

Seizing his chance, Hunt backed up a step, then another, fading into the shadows of the veranda beyond the study. He kept moving, stealthy, until his heels were at the edge of the landing. But as he stepped off, free-falling into the night, he caught Celestina looking at him.

Disappointment and displeasure darkened her eyes.


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