House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City), Page 2Sarah J. Maas
The humans in Asphodel Meadows had no Head. No seat at the table. Philip Briggs had found more than a few sympathizers because of it.
But Micah, Head of the Central Business District, ruled over them all. Beyond his city titles, he was Archangel of Valbara. Ruler of this entire fucking territory, and answerable only to the six Asteri in the Eternal City, the capital and beating heart of Pangera. Of the entire planet of Midgard. If anyone could keep Briggs in prison, it would be him.
Danika reached the bottom of the stairs, so far below that she was cut off from sight by the slope of the ceiling. Bryce lingered in the archway, listening as Danika said, “Hey, Syrinx.” A little yip of delight from the thirty-pound chimera rose up the stairs.
Jesiba had purchased the Lower creature two months ago, to Bryce’s delight. He is not a pet, Jesiba had warned her. He’s an expensive, rare creature bought for the sole purpose of assisting Lehabah in guarding these books. Do not interfere with his duties.
Bryce had so far failed to inform Jesiba that Syrinx was more interested in eating, sleeping, and getting belly rubs than monitoring the precious books. No matter that her boss might see that at any point, should she bother to check the dozens of camera feeds in the library.
Danika drawled, the smirk audible in her voice, “What’s got your panties in a twist, Lehabah?”
The fire sprite grumbled, “I don’t wear panties. Or clothes. They don’t pair well when you’re made of flame, Danika.”
Danika snickered. Before Bryce could decide whether to go downstairs to referee the match between the fire sprite and the wolf, the phone on the desk began ringing. She had a good idea who it would be.
Heels sinking into the plush carpeting, Bryce reached the phone before it went to audiomail, sparing herself a five-minute lecture. “Hi, Jesiba.”
A beautiful, lilting female voice answered, “Please tell Danika Fendyr that if she continues to use the supply closet as her own personal locker, I will turn her into a lizard.”
By the time Danika emerged on the gallery’s showroom floor, Bryce had endured a mildly threatening reprimand from Jesiba about her ineptitude, one email from a fussy client demanding Bryce expedite the paperwork on the ancient urn she’d bought so she could show it off to her equally fussy friends at her cocktail party on Monday, and two messages from members of Danika’s pack inquiring about whether their Alpha was about to kill someone over Briggs’s release.
Nathalie, Danika’s Third, had gotten straight to the point: Has she lost her shit about Briggs yet?
Connor Holstrom, Danika’s Second, took a little more care with what he sent out into the ether. There was always a chance of a leak. Have you spoken to Danika? was all he’d asked.
Bryce was writing back to Connor—Yes. I’ve got it covered—when a gray wolf the size of a small horse pushed the iron archives door shut with a paw, claws clicking on the metal.
“You hated my clothes that much?” Bryce asked, rising from her seat. Only Danika’s caramel eyes remained the same in this form—and only those eyes softened the pure menace and grace the wolf radiated with each step toward the desk.
“I’ve got them on, don’t worry.” Long, sharp fangs flashed with each word. Danika cocked her fuzzy ears, taking in the computer that had been shut down, the purse Bryce had set on the desk. “You’re coming out with me?”
“I’ve got to do some sleuthing for Jesiba.” Bryce grabbed the ring of keys that opened doors into various parts of her life. “She’s been hounding me about finding Luna’s Horn again. As if I haven’t been trying to find it nonstop for the last week.”
Danika glanced to one of the visible cameras in the showroom, mounted behind a decapitated statue of a dancing faun dating back ten thousand years. Her bushy tail swished once. “Why does she even want it?”
Bryce shrugged. “I haven’t had the balls to ask.”
Danika stalked to the front door, careful not to let her claws snag a single thread in the carpet. “I doubt she’s going to return it to the temple out of the goodness of her heart.”
“I have a feeling Jesiba would leverage its return to her advantage,” Bryce said. They strode onto the quiet street a block off the Istros, the midday sun baking the cobblestones, Danika a solid wall of fur and muscle between Bryce and the curb.
The theft of the sacred horn during the power outage had been the biggest news story out of the disaster: looters had used the cover of darkness to break into Luna’s Temple and swipe the ancient Fae relic from its resting place atop the lap of the massive, enthroned deity.
The Archangel Micah himself had offered a hefty reward for any information regarding its return and promised that the sacrilegious bastard who’d stolen it would be brought to justice.
Also known as public crucifixion.
Bryce always made a point of not going near the square in the CBD, where they were usually held. On certain days, depending on the wind and heat, the smell of blood and rotting flesh could carry for blocks.
Bryce fell into step beside Danika as the massive wolf scanned the street, nostrils sniffing for any hint of a threat. Bryce, as half-Fae, could scent people in greater detail than the average human. She’d entertained her parents endlessly as a kid by describing the scents of everyone in their little mountain town, Nidaros—humans possessed no such way to interpret the world. But her abilities had nothing on her friend’s.
As Danika scented the street, her tail wagged once—and not from happiness.
“Chill,” Bryce said. “You’ll make your case to the Heads, then they’ll figure it out.”
Danika’s ears flattened. “It’s all fucked, B. All of it.”
Bryce frowned. “You really mean to tell me that any of the Heads want a rebel like Briggs at large? They’ll find some technicality and throw his ass right back in jail.” She added, because Danika still wouldn’t look at her, “There’s no way the 33rd’s not monitoring his every breath. Briggs so much as blinks wrong and he’ll see what kind of pain angels can rain down on us all. Hel, the Governor might even send the Umbra Mortis after him.” Micah’s personal assassin, with the rare gift of lightning in his veins, could eliminate almost any threat.
Danika snarled, teeth gleaming. “I can handle Briggs myself.”
“I know you can. Everyone knows you can, Danika.”
Danika surveyed the street ahead, glancing past a poster of the six enthroned Asteri tacked up on a wall—with an empty throne to honor their fallen sister—but loosed a breath.
She would always have burdens and expectations to shoulder that Bryce would never have to endure, and Bryce was thankful as Hel for that privilege. When Bryce fucked up, Jesiba usually griped for a few minutes and that was that. When Danika fucked up, it was blasted on news reports and across the interweb.
Sabine made sure of it.
Bryce and Sabine had hated each other from the moment the Alpha had sneered at her only child’s improper, half-breed roommate that first day at CCU. And Bryce had loved Danika from the moment her new roommate had offered her a hand in greeting anyway, and then said Sabine was just pissy because she’d been hoping for a muscle-bound vampyr to drool over.
Danika rarely let the opinions of others—especially Sabine—eat away at her swagger and joy, yet on rough days like this … Bryce lifted a hand and ran it down Danika’s muscled ribs, a comforting, sweeping stroke.
“Do you think Briggs will come after you or the pack?” Bryce asked, her stomach twisting. Danika hadn’t busted Briggs alone—he had a score to settle with all of them.
Danika’s snout wrinkled. “I don’t know.”
The words echoed between them. In hand-to-hand combat, Briggs would never survive against Danika. But one of those bombs would change everything. If Danika had made the Drop into immortality, she’d probably survive. But since she hadn’t—since she was the only one of the Pack of Devils who hadn’t yet done it … Bryce’s mouth turned dry.
“Be careful,” Bryce said quiet
“I will,” Danika said, her warm eyes still full of shadows. But then she tossed her head, as if shaking it free of water—the movement purely canine. Bryce often marveled at this, that Danika could clear away her fears, or at least bury them, enough to move onward. Indeed, Danika changed the subject. “Your brother will be at the meeting today.”
Half brother. Bryce didn’t bother to correct her. Half brother and full-Fae prick. “And?”
“Just thought I’d warn you that I’ll be seeing him.” The wolf’s face softened slightly. “He’s going to ask me how you’re doing.”
“Tell Ruhn I’m busy doing important shit and to go to Hel.”
Danika huffed a laugh. “Where, exactly, are you doing this sleuthing for the Horn?”
“The temple,” Bryce said with a sigh. “Honestly, I’ve been looking into this thing for days on end, and can’t figure out anything. No suspects, no murmurings at the Meat Market about it being for sale, no motive for who’d even bother with it. It’s famous enough that whoever’s got it has it wrapped up tight.” She frowned at the clear sky. “I almost wonder if the power outage was tied to it—if someone shut down the city’s grid to steal it in the chaos. There are about twenty people in this city capable of being that crafty, and half of them possess the resources to pull it off.”
Danika’s tail twitched. “If they’re able to do something like that, I’d suggest staying away. Lead Jesiba around a bit, make her think you’re looking for it, and then let it drop. Either the Horn will show up by then, or she’ll move on to her next stupid quest.”
Bryce admitted, “I just … It’d be good to find the Horn. For my own career.” Whatever the Hel that would be. A year of working at the gallery hadn’t sparked anything beyond disgust at the obscene amounts of money that rich people squandered on old-ass shit.
Danika’s eyes flickered. “Yeah, I know.”
Bryce zipped a tiny golden pendant—a knot of three entwined circles—along the delicate chain around her neck.
Danika went on patrol armed with claws, a sword, and guns, but Bryce’s daily armor consisted solely of this: an Archesian amulet barely the size of her thumbnail, gifted by Jesiba on the first day of work.
A hazmat suit in a necklace, Danika had marveled when Bryce had shown off the amulet’s considerable protections against the influence of various magical objects. Archesian amulets didn’t come cheap, but Bryce didn’t bother to delude herself into thinking her boss’s gift was given out of anything but self-interest. It would have been an insurance nightmare if Bryce didn’t have one.
Danika nodded to the necklace. “Don’t take that off. Especially if you’re looking into shit like the Horn.” Even though the Horn’s mighty powers had long been dead—if it had been stolen by someone powerful, she’d need every magical defense against them.
“Yeah, yeah,” Bryce said, though Danika was right. She’d never taken the necklace off since getting it. If Jesiba ever kicked her to the curb, she knew she’d have to find some way to make sure the necklace came with her. Danika had said as much several times, unable to stop that Alpha wolf’s instinct to protect at all costs. It was part of why Bryce loved her—and why her chest tightened in that moment with that same love and gratitude.
Bryce’s phone buzzed in her purse, and she fished it out. Danika peered over, noted who was calling, and wagged her tail, ears perking up.
“Do not say a word about Briggs,” Bryce warned, and accepted the call. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hey, sweetie.” Ember Quinlan’s clear voice filled her ear, drawing a smile from Bryce even with three hundred miles between them. “I wanted to double-check that next weekend is still okay to visit.”
“Hi, Mommy!” Danika barked toward the phone.
Ember laughed. Ember had always been Mom to Danika, even from their first meeting. And Ember, who had never borne any children beyond Bryce, had been more than glad to find herself with a second—equally willful and troublesome—daughter. “Danika’s with you?”
Bryce rolled her eyes and held out the phone to her friend. Between one step and the next, Danika shifted in a flash of light, the massive wolf shrinking into the lithe humanoid form.
Snatching the phone from Bryce, Danika pinned it between her ear and shoulder as she adjusted the white silk blouse Bryce had loaned her, tucking it into her stained jeans. She’d managed to wipe a good amount of the nightstalker gunk off both the pants and leather jacket, but the T-shirt had apparently been a lost cause. Danika said into the phone, “Bryce and I are taking a walk.”
With Bryce’s arched ears, she could hear her mother perfectly as she said, “Where?”
Ember Quinlan made overprotectiveness a competitive sport.
Moving here, to Lunathion, had been a test of wills. Ember had only relented when she’d learned who Bryce’s freshman-year roommate was—and then gave Danika a lecture on how to make sure Bryce stayed safe. Randall, Bryce’s stepfather, had mercifully cut his wife off after thirty minutes.
Bryce knows how to defend herself, Randall had reminded Ember. We saw to that. And Bryce will keep up her training while she’s here, won’t she?
Bryce certainly had. She’d hit up the gun range just a few days ago, going through the motions Randall—her true father, as far as she was concerned—had taught her since childhood: assembling a gun, taking aim at a target, controlling her breathing.
Most days, she found guns to be brutal killing machines, and felt grateful that they were highly regulated by the Republic. But given that she had little more to defend herself beyond speed and a few well-placed maneuvers, she’d learned that for a human, a gun could mean the difference between life and slaughter.
Danika fibbed, “We’re just heading to one of the hawker stalls in the Old Square—we wanted some lamb kofta.”
Before Ember could continue the interrogation, Danika added, “Hey, B must have forgotten to tell you that we’re actually heading down to Kalaxos next weekend—Ithan’s got a sunball game there, and we’re all going to cheer him on.”
A half-truth. The game was happening, but there had been no discussion of going to watch Connor’s younger brother, CCU’s star player. This afternoon, the Pack of Devils was actually heading over to the CCU arena to cheer for Ithan, but Bryce and Danika hadn’t bothered to attend an away game since sophomore year, when Danika had been sleeping with one of the defensemen.
“That’s too bad,” Ember said. Bryce could practically hear the frown in her mother’s tone. “We were really looking forward to it.”
Burning Solas, this woman was a master of the guilt trip. Bryce cringed and snatched back the phone. “So were we, but let’s reschedule for next month.”
“But that’s so long from now—”
“Shit, a client’s coming down the street,” Bryce lied. “I gotta go.”
“Bryce Adelaide Quinlan—”
“Bye, Mom!” Danika echoed, just as Bryce hung up.
Bryce sighed toward the sky, ignoring the angels soaring and flapping past, their shadows dancing over the sun-washed streets. “Message incoming in three, two …”
Her phone buzzed.
Ember had written, If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were avoiding us, Bryce. Your father will be very hurt.
Danika let out a whistle. “Oh, she’s good.”
Bryce groaned. “I’m not letting them come to the city if Briggs is running free.”
Danika’s smile faded. “I know. We’ll keep pushing them off until it’s sorted out.” Thank Cthona for Danika—she always had a plan for everything.
Bryce slid her phone into her purse, leaving her mother’s message unanswered.
When they reached the Gate at the heart of the Old Square, its quartz archway as clear as a frozen pond, the sun was just hitting its upper edge, refracting and casting small rainbows against one of the buildings flanking it. On Summer Solstice, when the sun lined up perfectly with the Gate, it filled the entire sq
uare with rainbows, so many that it was like walking inside a diamond.
Tourists milled about, a line of them snaking across the square itself, all waiting for the chance at a photo with the twenty-foot-high landmark.
One of seven in this city, all carved from enormous blocks of quartz hewn from the Laconian Mountains to the north, the Old Square Gate was often called the Heart Gate, thanks to its location in the dead center of Lunathion, with the other six Gates located equidistant from it, each one opening onto a road out of the walled city.
“They should make a special access lane for residents to cross the square,” Bryce muttered as they edged around tourists and hawkers.
“And give tourists fines for slow walking,” Danika muttered back, but flashed a lupine grin at a young human couple that recognized her, gawked, and began snapping photos.
“I wonder what they’d think if they knew that nightstalker’s special sauce is all over you,” Bryce murmured.
Danika elbowed her. “Asshole.” She threw a friendly wave to the tourists and continued on.
On the other side of the Heart Gate, amid a small army of vendors selling food and touristy crap, a second line of people waited to access the golden block sticking out of its southern side. “We’ll have to cut through them to get across,” Bryce said, scowling at the tourists idling in the wilting heat.
But Danika halted, her angular face turned to the Gate and the plaque. “Let’s make a wish.”