House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (10 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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8

TWENTY-TWO MONTHS LATER

B
ryce Quinlan stumbled from the White Raven’s bathroom, a lion shifter nuzzling her neck, his broad hands grabbing at her waist.

It was easily the best sex she’d had in three months. Maybe longer than that. Maybe she’d keep him for a while.

Maybe she should learn his name first. Not that it mattered. Her meeting was at the VIP bar across the club in … well, shit. Right now.

The beat of the music pounded against her bones, echoing off the carved pillars, an incessant summons that Bryce ignored, denied. Just as she had every day for the past two years.

“Let’s dance.” The golden-haired lion’s words rumbled against her ear as he gripped her hand to drag her toward the teeming throng on the ancient stones of the dance floor.

She planted her feet as firmly as her four-inch stilettos would allow. “No, thanks. I’ve got a business meeting.” Not a lie, though she would have turned him down regardless.

The corner of the lion’s lip twitched as he surveyed her short-as-sin black dress, the bare legs she’d had wrapped around his waist moments ago. Urd spare her, his cheekbones were unreal. So were
those golden eyes, now narrowing in amusement. “You go to business meetings looking like that?”

She did when her boss’s clients insisted on meeting in a neutral space like the Raven, fearful of whatever monitoring or spells Jesiba had at the gallery.

Bryce never would have come here—had so rarely come back here at all—on her own. She’d been sipping sparkling water at the
normal
bar within the club, not the VIP one she was supposed to be sitting at on the mezzanine, when the lion approached her with that easy smile and those broad shoulders. She’d been in such need of a distraction from the tension building in her with each moment in here that she’d barely finished her glass before she’d dragged him into the bathroom. He’d been all too happy to oblige her.

Bryce said to the lion, “Thanks for the ride.”
Whatever your name is
.

It took him a blink to realize she was serious about the business meeting. Red crept over his tanned cheeks. Then he blurted, “I can’t pay you.”

It was her turn to blink. Then she tipped her head back and laughed.

Just perfect: he thought she was one of the whores in Riso’s employ.
Sacred
prostitution, Riso had once explained—since the club lay on the ruins of a temple to pleasure, it was his duty to continue its traditions.

“Consider it on the house,” she crooned, patting him on the cheek before she turned toward the glowing golden bar on the glass mezzanine hovering over the cavernous space.

She didn’t let herself look toward the booth tucked between two age-worn pillars. Didn’t let herself see who might now be occupying it. Not Juniper, who was too busy these days for more than the occasional brunch, and certainly not Fury, who didn’t bother to take her calls, or answer messages, or even visit this city.

Bryce rolled her shoulders, shoving the thoughts away.

The jaguar shifters standing guard atop the illuminated golden staircase that linked the VIP mezzanine with the converted temple pulled aside their black velvet rope to let her pass.
Twenty glass stools flanked the solid gold bar, and only a third of them were occupied. Vanir of every House sat in them. No humans, though.

Except for her, if she even counted.

Her client was already seated at the far end of the bar, his dark suit tight over his bulky frame, long black hair slicked back to reveal a sharp-boned face and inky eyes.

Bryce rattled off his details to herself as she sauntered up to him, praying he wasn’t the sort to mark that she was technically two minutes late.

Maximus Tertian: two-hundred-year-old vampyr; unwed and unmated; son of Lord Cedrian, richest of the Pangeran vamps and the most monstrous, if rumor was to be believed. Known for filling bathtubs with the blood of human maidens in his frosty mountain keep, bathing in their youth—

Not helpful
. Bryce plastered on a smile and claimed the stool beside his, ordering a sparkling water from the bartender. “Mr. Tertian,” she said by way of greeting, extending her hand.

The vampyr’s smile was so smooth she knew ten thousand pairs of underwear had likely dropped at the sight of it over the centuries. “Miss Quinlan,” he purred, taking her hand and brushing a kiss to the back of it. His lips lingered just long enough that she suppressed the urge to yank her fingers back. “A pleasure to meet you in the flesh.” His eyes dipped toward her neck, then the cleavage exposed by her dress. “Your employer might have a gallery full of art, but you are the true masterpiece.”

Oh please.

Bryce ducked her head, making herself smile. “You say that to all the girls.”

“Only the mouthwatering ones.”

An offer for how this night could end, if she wanted: being sucked and fucked. She didn’t bother to inform him she’d already had that particular need scratched, minus the sucking. She liked her blood where it was, thank you very much.

She reached into her purse, pulling out a narrow leather folio—an exact replica of what the Raven used to hand out steep
bills to its most exclusive patrons. “Your drink’s on me.” She slid the folio toward him with a smile.

Maximus peered at the ownership papers for the five-thousand-year-old onyx bust of a long-dead vampyr lord. The deal had been a triumph for Bryce after weeks of sending out feelers to potential buyers, taunting them with the chance to buy a rare artifact before any of their rivals. She’d had her eye on Maximus, and during their endless phone calls and messages, she’d played him well, drawing upon his hatred for other vampyr lords, his fragile ego, his unbearable arrogance.

It was an effort now to suppress her smile as Maximus—
never Max
—nodded while he read. Giving him the illusion of privacy, Bryce pivoted on the stool to peer at the teeming club below.

A cluster of young females adorned in firstlight glow-stick halos danced together near a pillar, laughing and singing and passing a bottle of sparkling wine among them.

Bryce’s chest tightened. She’d once planned to have her Drop party at the Raven. Had planned to be as obnoxious as those females down there, partying with her friends from the moment she emerged from the Ascent until she either passed out or was kicked to the curb.

The party, honestly, was what she’d wanted to focus on. What most people tried to focus on. Rather than the sheer terror of the Drop ritual itself.

But it was a necessary rite. Because the firstlight grid’s power was generated by the pure, undiluted light each Vanir emitted while making the Drop. And it was only during the Drop that the flash of firstlight appeared—raw, unfiltered magic. It could heal and destroy and do everything in between.

Captured and bottled, the first glow was always used for healing, then the rest of it was handed over to the energy plants to fuel their lights and cars and machines and tech; some of it was used for spells, and some was reserved for whatever shady shit the Republic wanted.

The “donation” of the firstlight by each citizen was a key element of the Drop ritual, part of why it was always done in a
government center: a sterile room, where the light from the person making the Drop was gobbled up during the transition into immortality and true power. All tracked by the Eleusian system, able to monitor every moment of it through vibrations in the world’s magic. Indeed, family members sometimes watched the feeds in an adjacent room.

The Drop was the easy part: falling into one’s power. But once the bottom was reached, one’s mortal body expired. And then the clock began counting down.

Mere minutes were allowed for the race back up to life—before the brain shut down permanently from lack of oxygen. Six minutes to start barreling down a psychic runway along the bottom of one’s power, a single desperate shot at launching skyward toward life. The alternative to successfully making that leap: tumbling into an endless black pit and awaiting death. The alternative to getting enough momentum on that runway: tumbling into an endless black pit and awaiting death.

Which was why someone else had to act as an Anchor: a beacon, a lifeline, a bungee cord that would snap their companion back up to life once they leapt off the runway. To make the Drop alone was to die—to reach the bottom of one’s power, to have one’s heart stop beating upon hitting that nadir. No one knew if the soul continued living down there, lost forever, or if it died along with the body left in life.

It was why Anchors were usually family—parents or siblings—or trusted friends. Someone who wouldn’t leave you stranded. Or a government employee who had a legal obligation not to do so. Some claimed those six minutes were called the Search—that during that time, you faced the very depths of your soul. But beyond that, there was no hope of survival.

It was only upon making the Ascent and reaching that threshold back to life, brimming with new power, that immortality was attained, the aging process slowed to a glacial drip and the body rendered near-indestructible as it was bathed in all that ensuing firstlight, so bright it could blind the naked eye. And at the end of it, when the Drop Center’s sleek energy panels had siphoned off
that firstlight, all any of them were left with to mark the occasion was a mere pinprick of that light in a bottle. A pretty souvenir.

These days, with Drop parties like the one below all the rage, the newly immortal often used their allotment of their own firstlight to make party favors to hand out to their friends. Bryce had planned for glow sticks and key chains that said
Kiss My Sparkly Ass!
Danika had just wanted shot glasses.

Bryce tucked away that old ache in her chest as Maximus shut the folio with a snap, his reading done. A matching folio appeared in his hand, then he nudged it across the shining gold surface of the bar.

Bryce glanced at the check within—for a mind-boggling sum that he handed over as if passing her an empty gum wrapper—and smiled again. Even as some small part of her cringed at the tiny fact that she wouldn’t receive any part of her commission on the piece. On any art in Jesiba’s gallery. That money went elsewhere.

“A pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Tertian.”

There. Done. Time to go home and climb into bed and snuggle with Syrinx. The best form of celebrating she could think of these days.

But a pale, strong hand landed on the folio. “Going so soon?” Maximus’s smile grew again. “It’d be a shame for a pretty thing like you to leave when I was about to order a bottle of Serat.” The sparkling wine from the south of Valbara started at roughly a hundred gold marks a bottle. And apparently made pricks like him believe they were entitled to female company.

Bryce gave him a wink, trying to pull the folio with the check toward her awaiting purse. “I think you’d be the one feeling sorry if a pretty thing like me left, Mr. Tertian.”

His hand remained on the folio. “For what I paid your boss, I’d think some perks came with this deal.”

Well, it had to be a record: being mistaken for a whore twice within ten minutes. She had no disdain for the world’s oldest profession, only respect and sometimes pity, but being mistaken for one of them had led to more unfortunate incidents than she liked. Yet Bryce managed to say calmly, “I’m afraid I have another meeting.”

Maximus’s hand slipped to her wrist, gripping hard enough to demonstrate that he could snap every bone inside it with barely a thought.

She refused to allow her scent to shift as her stomach hollowed out. She had dealt with his kind and worse. “Take your hand off me, please.”

She added the last word because she owed it to Jesiba to at least sound polite—just once.

But Maximus surveyed her body with all the male, immortal entitlement in the world. “Some like their prey to play hard to get.” He smiled up at her again. “I happen to be one of them. I’ll make it good for you, you know.”

She met his stare, hating that some small part of her wanted to recoil. That it recognized him as a predator and her as his prey and she’d be lucky to even get the chance to run before she was eaten whole. “No, thank you.”

The VIP mezzanine went quiet, the ripple of silence a sure sign that some bigger, badder predator had prowled in. Good.

Maybe it’d distract the vampyr long enough for her to snatch her wrist back. And that check. Jesiba would flay her alive if she left without it.

Indeed, Maximus’s gaze drifted over her shoulder to whoever had entered. His hand tightened on Bryce’s. Just hard enough that Bryce looked.

A dark-haired Fae male stalked up to the other end of the bar. Looking right at her.

She tried not to groan. And not the way she’d groaned with that lion shifter.

The Fae male kept looking at her as Maximus’s upper lip pulled back from his teeth, revealing the elongated canines he so badly wanted to sink into her. Maximus snarled in warning. “You are mine.” The words were so guttural she could barely understand him.

Bryce sighed through her nose as the Fae male took a seat at the bar, murmuring his drink order to the silver-haired sylph behind it. “That’s my cousin,” Bryce said. “Relax.”

The vampyr blinked. “What?”

His surprise cost him: his grip loosened, and Bryce stashed the folio with the check in her purse as she stepped back. At least her Fae heritage was good for moving quickly when necessary. Walking away, Bryce purred over a shoulder, “Just so you know—I don’t do possessive and aggressive.”

Maximus snarled again, but he’d seen who her “cousin” was. He didn’t dare follow.

Even when the world thought they were only distantly related, one didn’t fuck with the relatives of Ruhn Danaan.

If they had known Ruhn was her brother—well, technically her half brother—no male would ever go near her. But thankfully, the world thought he was her cousin, and she was glad to keep it that way. Not just because of who their sire was and the secrecy that she’d long ago sworn to maintain. Not just because Ruhn was the legitimate child, the fucking Chosen One, and she was … not.

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