House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (5 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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Smiling to herself, she trailed him out of the kitchen, cringing at the monstrously loud television the wolves were all watching very,
very
intently.

Even Danika knew there were limits to how far she could push Connor without serious consequences.

For a heartbeat, Bryce debated grabbing the Second by the shoulder and explaining that he’d be better off finding a nice, sweet wolf who wanted to have a litter of pups, and that he didn’t really want someone who was ten kinds of fucked-up, still liked to party until she was no better than a puking-in-an-alley CCU student, and wasn’t entirely sure if she
could
love someone, not when Danika was all she really needed anyway.

But she didn’t grab Connor, and by the time Bryce scooped her keys from the bowl beside the door, he’d slumped onto the couch—again, in
her
spot—and was staring pointedly at the screen. “Bye,” she said to no one in particular.

Danika met her gaze from across the room, her eyes still wary but faintly amused. She winked. “Light it up, bitch.”

“Light it up, asshole,” Bryce replied, the farewell sliding off her tongue with the ease of years of usage.

But it was Danika’s added “Love you” as Bryce slipped out into
the grimy hallway that made her hesitate with her hand on the knob.

It’d taken Danika a few years to say those words, and she still used them sparingly. Danika had initially hated it when Bryce said them to her—even when Bryce explained that she’d spent most of her life saying it, just in case it
was
the last time. In case she wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the people who mattered most. And it had taken one of their more fucked-up adventures—a trashed motorcycle, and literally having guns pointed at their heads—to get Danika to utter the words, but at least she now said them. Sometimes.

Forget Briggs’s release. Sabine must have really done a number on Danika.

Bryce’s heels clacked on the worn tile floor as she headed for the stairs at the end of the hall. Maybe she should cancel on Reid. She could grab some buckets of ice cream from the corner market and cuddle in bed with Danika while they watched their favorite absurd comedies.

Maybe she’d call up Fury and see if she could pay a little visit to Sabine.

But—she’d never ask that of Fury. Fury kept her professional shit out of their lives, and they knew better than to ask too many questions. Only Juniper could get away with it.

Honestly, it made no sense that any of them were friends: the future Alpha of all wolves, an assassin for high-paying clients waging war across the sea, a stunningly talented dancer and the only faun
ever
to grace the stage of the Crescent City Ballet, and … her.

Bryce Quinlan. Assistant to a sorceress. Would-be,
wrong-body-type
dancer. Chronic dater of preening, breakable human men who had no idea what to do with her. Let alone what to do with Danika, if they ever got far enough into the dating crucible.

Bryce clomped down the stairs, scowling at one of the orbs of firstlight that cast the crumbling gray-blue paint in flickering relief. The landlord went as cheap as possible on the firstlight, likely siphoning it off the grid rather than paying the city for it like everyone else.

Everything in this apartment building was a piece of shit, to be honest.

Danika could afford better. Bryce certainly couldn’t. And Danika knew her well enough not to even suggest that she alone pay for one of the high-rise, glossy apartments by the river’s edge or in the CBD. So after graduation, they’d only looked at places Bryce could swing with her paycheck—this particular shithole being the least miserable of them.

Sometimes, Bryce wished she’d accepted her monstrous father’s money—wished she hadn’t decided to develop some semblance of morals at the exact moment the creep had offered her mountains of gold marks in exchange for her eternal silence about him. At least then she’d currently be lounging by some sky-high pool deck, ogling oiled-up angels as they swaggered past, and not avoiding the letch of a janitor who leered at her chest anytime she had to complain about the trash chute being blocked yet again.

The glass door at the bottom of the stairwell led onto the night-darkened street, already packed with tourists, revelers, and bleary-eyed residents trying to squeeze their way home through the rowdy crowds after a long, hot summer day. A draki male clad in a suit and tie rushed past, messenger bag bobbing at his hip as he wove his way around a family of some sort of equine shifters—perhaps horses, judging by their scents full of open skies and green fields—all so busy snapping photos of everything that they remained oblivious to anyone trying to get somewhere.

At the corner, a pair of bored malakim clad in the black armor of the 33rd kept their wings tucked in tight to their powerful bodies, no doubt to avoid any harried commuter or drunk idiot touching them. Touch an angel’s wings without permission and you’d be lucky to lose just a hand.

Firmly shutting the glass door behind her, Bryce soaked in the tangle of sensations that was this ancient, vibrant city: the dry summer heat that threatened to bake her very bones; the honk of car horns slicing through the steady hiss and dribble of music leaking from the revel halls; the wind off the Istros River, three blocks away,
rustling the swaying palms and cypresses; the hint of brine from the nearby turquoise sea; the seductive, night-soft smell of the crawling jasmine wrapped around the iron park fence nearby; the tang of puke and piss and stale beer; the beckoning, smoky spices crusting the slow-roasting lamb at the vendor’s cart on the corner … It all hit her in one awakening kiss.

Trying not to snap her ankles on the cobblestones, Bryce breathed in the nightly offering of Crescent City, drank it deep, and vanished down the teeming street.

 

4

T
he Pearl and Rose was everything Bryce hated about this city.

But at least Danika now owed her fifty silver marks.

The bouncers had let her stride past them, up the three steps, and through the open bronze-plated doors of the restaurant.

But even fifty silver marks wouldn’t put so much as a dent in paying for this meal. No, this would be firmly in the
gold
zone.

Reid could certainly afford it. Given the size of his bank account, he likely wouldn’t even glance at the check before handing over his black card.

Seated at a table in the heart of the gilded dining room, under the crystal chandeliers dangling from the intricately painted ceiling, Bryce went through two glasses of water and half a bottle of wine while she waited.

Twenty minutes in, her phone buzzed in her black silk clutch. If Reid was canceling on her, she’d kill him. There was no fucking way she could afford to pay for the wine—not without having to give up dance classes for the next month. Two months, actually.

But the messages weren’t from Reid, and Bryce read them three times before chucking her phone back in her purse and pouring another glass of very, very expensive wine.

Reid was rich
and
he was late. He owed her.

Especially since the upper echelons of Crescent City were entertaining themselves by sneering at her dress, the skin on display, the Fae ears but clearly human body.

Half-breed
—she could nearly hear the hateful term as they thought it. They considered her a lowly worker at best. Prey and dumpster fodder at worst.

Bryce took out her phone and read the messages a fourth time.

Connor had written,
You know I’m shit with talking. But what I wanted to say—before you tried to get into a fight with me instead, by the way—was that I think it’s worth it. You and me. Giving us a shot
.

He’d added:
I’m crazy about you. I don’t want anyone else. I haven’t for a long while. One date. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll deal with it. But just give me a chance. Please.

Bryce was still staring at the messages, her head spinning from all that gods-damned wine, when Reid finally appeared. Forty-five minutes late.

“Sorry, babe,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek before sliding onto his chair. His charcoal-gray suit remained immaculate, his golden skin glowing above the collar of his white shirt. Not one dark brown hair on his head was out of place.

Reid had the easy manners of someone brought up with money, education, and no doors locked to his desires. The Redners were one of the few human families who had risen into Vanir high society—and dressed for the part. Reid was meticulous about his appearance, down to the very last detail. Every tie he wore, she’d learned, was selected to bring out the green in his hazel eyes. His suits were always impeccably cut to his toned body. She might have called him vain, had she not put such consideration into her own outfits. Had she not known that Reid worked with a personal trainer for the exact reason that she kept dancing—beyond her love for it—making sure her body was primed for when its strength might be needed to escape any would-be predator hunting the streets.

Since the day the Vanir had crawled through the Northern Rift and overtaken Midgard eons ago, an event historians called the Crossing, running was the best option if a Vanir decided to make a meal of you. That is, if you didn’t have a gun or bombs or any of
the horrid things people like Philip Briggs had developed to kill even a long-lived, quick-healing creature.

She often wondered about it: what it had been like before this planet had found itself occupied by creatures from so many different worlds, all of them far more advanced and
civilized
than this one, when it was just humans and ordinary animals. Even their calendar system hearkened to the Crossing, and the time before and after it: H.E. and V.E.—
Human Era
and
Vanir Era
.

Reid lifted his dark brows at the mostly empty bottle of wine. “Nice choice.”

Forty-five minutes. Without a call or a message to tell her he’d be late.

Bryce gritted her teeth. “Something came up at work?”

Reid shrugged, scanning the restaurant for high-ranking officials to hobnob with. As the son of a man who had his name displayed in twenty-foot letters on three buildings in the CBD, people usually lined up to chat with him. “Some of the malakim are restless about developments in the Pangeran conflict. They needed reassurance their investments were still sound. The call ran long.”

The Pangeran conflict—the fighting Briggs so badly wanted to bring to this territory. The wine that had gone to her head eddied into an oily pool in her gut. “The angels think the war might spread here?”

Spying no one of interest in the restaurant, Reid flipped open his leather-bound menu. “No. The Asteri wouldn’t let that happen.”

“The Asteri let it happen over there.”

His lips twitched downward. “It’s a complicated issue, Bryce.”

Conversation over. She let him go back to studying the menu.

Reports of the territory across the Haldren Sea were grim: the human resistance was prepared to wipe themselves out rather than submit to the Asteri and their “elected” Senate’s rule. For forty years now, the war had raged in the vast Pangeran territory, wrecking cities, creeping toward the stormy sea. Should the conflict cross it, Crescent City, sitting on Valbara’s southeastern coast—midway up a peninsula called the Hand for the shape of the arid, mountainous land that jutted out—would be one of the first places in its path.

Fury refused to talk about what she saw over there. What she did over there. What side she fought for. Most Vanir did not find a challenge to more than fifteen thousand years of their reign amusing.

Most humans did not find fifteen thousand years of near-slavery, of being prey and food and whores, to be all that amusing, either. Never mind that in recent centuries, the Imperial Senate had granted humans more rights—with the Asteri’s approval, of course. The fact remained that anyone who stepped out of line was thrown right back to where they’d started: literal slaves to the Republic.

The slaves, at least, existed mostly in Pangera. A few lived in Crescent City, namely among the warrior-angels in the 33rd, the Governor’s personal legion, marked by the
SPQM
slave tattoo on their wrists. But they blended in, for the most part.

Crescent City, for all that its wealthiest were grade A assholes, was still a melting pot. One of the rare places where being a human didn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of menial labor. Though it didn’t entitle you to much else.

A dark-haired, blue-eyed Fae female caught Bryce’s cursory glance around the room, her boy toy across the table marking her as some sort of noble.

Bryce had never decided whom she hated more: the winged malakim or the Fae. The Fae, probably, whose considerable magic and grace made them think they were allowed to do what they pleased, with anyone they pleased. A trait shared by many members of the House of Sky and Breath: the swaggering angels, the lofty sylphs, and the simmering elementals.

House of Shitheads and Bastards
, Danika always called them. Though her own allegiance to the House of Earth and Blood might have shaded her opinion a bit—especially when the shifters and Fae were forever at odds.

Born of two Houses, Bryce had been forced to yield her allegiance to the House of Earth and Blood as part of accepting the civitas rank her father had gotten her. It had been the price paid for accepting the coveted citizen status: he’d petition for full citizenship, but she would have to claim Sky and Breath as her House.
She’d resented it, resented the bastard for making her choose, but even her mother had seen that the benefits outweighed the costs.

Not that there were many advantages or protections for humans within the House of Earth and Blood, either. Certainly not for the young man seated with the Fae female.

Beautiful, blond, no more than twenty, he was likely a tenth of his Fae companion’s age. The tanned skin of his wrists held no hint of the four-lettered slave tattoo. So he had to be with her through his own free will, then—or desire for whatever she offered: sex, money, influence. It was a fool’s bargain, though. She’d use him until she was bored, or he grew too old, and then dump his ass at the curb, still craving those Fae riches.

Bryce inclined her head to the noblewoman, who bared her too-white teeth at the insolence. The Fae female was beautiful—but most of the Fae were.

She found Reid watching, a frown on his handsome face. He shook his head—at
her
—and resumed reading the menu.

Bryce sipped her wine. Signaled the waiter to bring over another bottle.

I’m crazy about you.

Connor wouldn’t tolerate the sneering, the whispering. Neither would Danika. Bryce had witnessed
both
of them rip into the stupid assholes who’d hissed slurs at her, or who mistook her for one of the many half-Vanir females who scraped a living in the Meat Market by selling their bodies.

Most of those women didn’t get the chance to complete the Drop—either because they didn’t make it to the threshold of maturity or because they got the short end of the stick with a mortal life span. There were predators, both born and trained, who used the Meat Market as a personal hunting ground.

Bryce’s phone buzzed, right as the waiter finally made his way over, fresh bottle of wine in hand. Reid frowned again, his disapproval heavy enough that she refrained from reading the message until she’d ordered her beef-with-cheese-foam sandwich.

Danika had written,
Dump the limp-dicked bastard and put Connor
out of his misery. A date with him won’t kill you. He’s been waiting years, Bryce. Years. Give me something to smile about tonight
.

Bryce cringed as she shoved her phone back into her bag. She looked up to find Reid on his own phone, thumbs flying, his chiseled features illuminated by the dim screen. Their invention five decades ago had occurred right in Redner Industries’ famed tech lab, and vaulted the company into unprecedented fortune. A new era of linking the world, everyone claimed. Bryce thought they just gave people an excuse not to make eye contact. Or be bad dates.

“Reid,” she said. He just held up a finger.

Bryce tapped a red nail on the base of her wineglass. She kept her nails long—and took a daily elixir to keep them strong. Not as effective as talons or claws, but they could do some damage. At least enough to potentially get away from an assailant.

“Reid,” she said again. He kept typing, and looked up only when the first course appeared.

It was indeed a salmon mousse. Over a crisp of bread, and encaged in some latticework of curling green plants. Small ferns, perhaps. She swallowed her laugh.

“Go ahead and dig in,” Reid said distantly, typing again. “Don’t wait for me.”

“One bite and I’ll be done,” she muttered, lifting her fork but wondering how the Hel to eat the thing. No one around them used their fingers, but … The Fae female sneered again.

Bryce set down the fork. Folded her napkin into a neat square before she rose. “I’m going.”

“All right,” Reid said, eyes fixed on his screen. He clearly thought she was going to the bathroom. She could feel the eyes of a well-dressed angel at the next table travel up her expanse of bare leg, then heard the chair groan as he leaned back to admire the view of her ass.

Exactly why she kept her nails strong.

But she said to Reid, “No—I’m leaving. Thank you for dinner.”

That made him look up. “What? Bryce, sit down. Eat.”

As if his being late, being on the phone, weren’t part of this. As
if she were just something he needed to feed before he fucked. She said clearly, “This isn’t working out.”

His mouth tightened. “Excuse me?”

She doubted he’d ever been dumped. She said with a sweet smile, “Bye, Reid. Good luck with work.”

“Bryce.”

But she had enough gods-damned self-respect not to let him explain, not to accept sex that was merely okay basically in exchange for meals at restaurants she could never afford, and a man who had indeed rolled off her and gotten right back on that phone. So she swiped the bottle of wine and stepped away from the table, but not toward the exit.

She went up to the sneering Fae female and her human plaything and said in a cool voice that would have made even Danika back away, “Like what you see?”

The female gave her a sweeping glance, from Bryce’s heels to her red hair to the bottle of wine dangling from her fingers. The Fae female shrugged, setting the black stones in her long dress sparkling. “I’ll pay a gold mark to watch you two.” She inclined her head to the human at her table.

He offered Bryce a smile, his vacant face suggesting he was soaring high on some drug.

Bryce smirked at the female. “I didn’t know Fae females had gotten so cheap. Word on the street used to be that you’d pay us gold by the armful to pretend you’re not lifeless as Reapers between the sheets.”

The female’s tan face went white. Glossy, flesh-shredding nails snagged on the tablecloth. The man across from her didn’t so much as flinch.

Bryce put a hand on the man’s shoulder—in comfort or to piss off the female, she wasn’t sure. She squeezed lightly, again inclining her head toward the female, and strode out.

She swigged from the bottle of wine and flipped off the preening hostess on her way through the bronze doors. Then snatched a handful of matchbooks from the bowl atop the stand, too.

Reid’s breathless apologies to the noble drifted behind her as Bryce stepped onto the hot, dry street.

Well, shit. It was nine o’clock, she was decently dressed, and if she went back to that apartment, she’d pace around until Danika bit her head off. And the wolves would shove their noses into her business, which she didn’t want to discuss with them
at all
.

Which left one option. Her favorite option, fortunately.

Fury picked up on the first ring. “What.”

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