House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (12 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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10

I
t was barely ten in the morning, and Tuesday was already fucked.

Keeping a smile pasted on her face, Bryce lingered by her ironwood desk in the showroom of the gallery while a Fae couple browsed.

The elegant plucking of violins trickled through the hidden speakers in the two-level, wood-paneled space, the opening movement of a symphony that she’d switched on as soon as the intercom had buzzed. Given the couple’s attire—a pleated tan skirt and white silk blouse for the female, a gray suit for the male—she’d doubted they’d appreciate the thumping bass of her morning workout mix.

But they’d been browsing the art for ten minutes now, which was enough time for her to politely inquire, “Are you here for anything in particular, or just to browse?”

The blond Fae male, older-looking for one of his kind, waved a dismissive hand, leading his companion toward the nearest display: a partial marble relief from the ruins of Morrah, salvaged from a wrecked temple. The piece was about the size of a coffee table, with a rearing hippocamp filling most of it. The half-horse, half-fish creatures had once dwelled in the cerulean waters of the Rhagan Sea in Pangera, until ancient wars had destroyed them.

“Browsing,” the male replied coldly, his hand coming to rest on
his companion’s slender back as they studied the waves carved in strikingly precise detail.

Bryce summoned another smile. “Take your time. I’m at your disposal.”

The female nodded her thanks, but the male sneered his dismissal. His companion frowned deeply at him.

The silence in the small gallery turned palpable.

Bryce had gleaned from the moment they’d walked through the door that the male was here to impress the female, either by buying something outrageously expensive or pretending he could. Perhaps this was an arranged pairing, testing out the waters before committing to anything further.

Had Bryce been full-blooded Fae, had her father claimed her as his offspring, she might have been subjected to such things. Ruhn, especially with his Starborn status, would one day have to submit to an arranged marriage, when a young female deemed suitable to continue the precious royal bloodline came along.

Ruhn might sire a few children before then, but they wouldn’t be acknowledged as royalty unless their father chose that path. Unless they were
worthy
of it.

The Fae couple passed the mosaic from the courtyard of the once-great palace in Altium, then studied the intricate jade puzzle box that had belonged to a princess in a forgotten northern land.

Jesiba did most of the art acquisitions, which was why she was away so often, but Bryce herself had tracked down and purchased a good number of the pieces. And then resold them at a steep profit.

The couple had reached a set of fertility statues from Setmek when the front door buzzed.

Bryce glanced toward the clock on her desk. The afternoon client appointment wasn’t for another three hours. To have multiple browsers in the gallery was an oddity given the notoriously steep price tags of the art in here, but—maybe she’d get lucky and sell something today.

“Excuse me,” Bryce murmured, ducking around the massive desk and pulling up the outside camera feed on the computer. She’d barely clicked the icon when the buzzer rang again.

Bryce beheld who was standing on the sidewalk and froze.

Tuesday was indeed fucked.

No windows lined the sandstone facade of the slender two-story building a block off the Istros River. Only a bronze plaque to the right of the heavy iron door revealed to Hunt Athalar that it was a business of any sort.

Griffin Antiquities
had been etched there in archaic, bold lettering, the words adorned with a set of glaring owl eyes beneath them, as if daring any shoppers to enter. An intercom with a matching bronze button lay beneath.

Isaiah, in his usual suit and tie, had been staring at the buzzer for long enough that Hunt finally drawled, “There aren’t any enchantments on it, you know.” Despite the identity of its owner.

Isaiah shot him a look, straightening his tie. “I should have had a second cup of coffee,” he muttered before stabbing a finger onto the metal button. A faint buzzing sounded through the door.

No one answered.

Hunt scanned the building exterior for a hidden camera. Not a gleam or hint. The nearest one, in fact, was mounted on the chrome door of the bomb shelter halfway down the block.

Hunt scanned the sandstone facade again. There was no way Jesiba Roga wouldn’t have cameras covering every inch, both outside and within.

Hunt unleashed a crackle of his power, small tongues of lightning tasting for energy fields.

Nearly invisible in the sunny morning, the lightning bounced off a skintight enchantment coating the stone, the mortar, the door. A cold, clever spell that seemed to laugh softly at any attempt to enter
.

Hunt murmured, “Roga isn’t screwing around, is she?”

Isaiah pushed the buzzer again, harder than necessary. They had their orders—ones that were pressing enough that even Isaiah, regardless of the lack of coffee, was on a short fuse.

Though it could also have been due to the fact that Isaiah had been out until four in the morning. Hunt hadn’t asked about it, though. Had only heard Naomi and Justinian gossiping in the common room, wondering if this new boyfriend meant Isaiah was finally moving on.

Hunt hadn’t bothered to tell them there was no fucking way. Not when Isaiah obeyed Micah only because of the generous weekly salary that Micah gave them all, when the law declared that slaves weren’t owed a paycheck. The money Isaiah amassed would buy someone else’s freedom. Just as the shit Hunt did for Micah went toward earning his own.

Isaiah rang the buzzer a third time. “Maybe she’s not in.”

“She’s here,” Hunt said. The scent of her still lingered on the sidewalk, lilac and nutmeg and something he couldn’t quite place—like the gleam of the first stars at nightfall.

And indeed, a moment later, a silky female voice that definitely did not belong to the gallery’s owner crackled through the intercom. “I didn’t order a pizza.”

Despite himself, despite the mental clock ticking away, Hunt choked on a laugh.

Isaiah rustled his white wings, plastering on a charming smile, and said into the intercom, “We’re from the 33rd Legion. We’re here to see Bryce Quinlan.”

The voice sharpened. “I’m with clients. Come back later.”

Hunt was pretty sure that “come back later” meant “go fuck yourselves.”

Isaiah’s charming smile strained. “This is a matter of some urgency, Miss Quinlan.”

A low hum. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to make an appointment. How about … three weeks? I’ve got the twenty-eighth of April free. I’ll pencil you in for noon.”

Well, she had balls, Hunt would give her that much.

Isaiah widened his stance. Typical legion fighting position, beaten into them from their earliest days as grunts. “We need to talk right now, I’m afraid.”

No answer came. Like she’d just walked away from the intercom.

Hunt’s snarl sent the poor faun walking behind them bolting down the street, his delicate hooves clopping on the cobblestones. “She’s a spoiled party girl. What did you expect?”

“She’s not stupid, Hunt,” Isaiah countered.

“Everything I’ve seen and heard suggests otherwise.” What he’d seen when he skimmed her file two years ago, combined with what he’d read this morning and the pictures he’d gone through, all painted a portrait that told him precisely how this meeting would go. Too bad for her it was about to get a Hel of a lot more serious.

Hunt jerked his chin toward the door. “Let’s see if a client’s even in there.” He stalked back across the street, where he leaned against a parked blue car. Some drunken reveler had used its hood as a canvas to spray-paint an unnecessarily detailed, massive cock—with wings. A mockery of the 33rd’s logo of a winged sword, he realized. Or merely the logo stripped down to its true meaning.

Isaiah noted it as well and chuckled, following Hunt’s lead and leaning against the car.

A minute passed. Hunt didn’t move an inch. Didn’t take his gaze away from the iron door. He had better things to do with this day than play games with a brat, but orders were orders. After five minutes, a sleek black sedan rolled up and the iron door opened.

The Fae driver of the car, which was worth more than most human families saw in a lifetime, got out. He was around the other side of the vehicle in a heartbeat, opening the back passenger door. Two Fae paraded out of the gallery, a male and a female. The pretty female’s every breath radiated the easy confidence gained from a lifetime of wealth and privilege.

Around her slim neck lay a strand of diamonds, each as large as Hunt’s fingernail. Worth as much as the car—more. The male climbed into the sedan, face tight as he slammed the door before his driver could do it for him. The well-heeled female just rushed down the street, phone already to her ear, grousing to whoever was on the line about
No more blind dates, for Urd’s sake
.

Hunt’s attention returned to the gallery door, where a curvy, red-haired woman stood.

Only when the car rounded the corner did Bryce slide her eyes toward them.

She angled her head, her silken sheet of hair sliding over the shoulder of her white skintight dress, and smiled brightly. Waved. The delicate gold amulet around her tan neck glinted.

Hunt pushed off the parked car and stalked toward her, his gray wings flaring wide.

A flick of Bryce’s amber eyes took in Hunt from his tattoo to his ass-kicking boot tips. Her smile grew. “See you in three weeks,” she said cheerfully, and slammed the door shut.

Hunt cleared the street in a matter of steps. A car screeched to a stop, but the driver wasn’t stupid enough to blast the horn. Not when lightning wreathed Hunt’s fist as he pounded it into the intercom button. “Don’t waste my fucking time, Quinlan.”

Isaiah let the near-frantic driver pass before coming up behind Hunt, his brown eyes narrowing. But Bryce replied sweetly, “My boss doesn’t like legionaries in her place. Sorry.”

Hunt slammed his fist into the iron door. That same blow had smashed cars, shattered walls, and splintered bones. And that was without the aid of the storm in his veins. The iron didn’t so much as shudder; his lightning skittered off it.

To Hel with threats, then. He’d go for the jugular, as deep and sure as any of his physical kills. So Hunt said into the intercom, “We’re here about a murder.”

Isaiah winced, scanning the street and skies for anyone who might have heard.

Hunt crossed his arms as the silence spread.

Then the iron door hissed and clicked, and inched open.

Bull’s-fucking-eye.

It took Hunt a heartbeat to adjust from the sunlight to the dimmer interior, and he used that first step into the gallery to note every angle and exit and detail.

Plush pine-green carpets went wall to wood-paneled wall in the two-story showroom. Alcoves with soft-lit art displays dotted the edges of the room: chunks of ancient frescoes, paintings, and statues of Vanir so strange and rare even Hunt didn’t know their names.

Bryce Quinlan leaned against the large ironwood desk in the center of the space, her snow-white dress clinging to every generous curve and dip.

Hunt smiled slowly, showing all his teeth.

He waited for it: the realization of who he was. Waited for her to shrink back, to fumble for the panic button or gun or whatever the fuck she thought might save her from the likes of him.

But maybe she was stupid, after all, because her answering smile was saccharine in the extreme. Her red-tinted nails idly tapped on the pristine wood surface. “You have fifteen minutes.”

Hunt didn’t tell her that this meeting would likely take a good deal longer than that.

Isaiah turned to shut the door, but Hunt knew it was already locked. Just as he knew, thanks to legion intel gathered over the years, that the small wood door behind the desk led upstairs to Jesiba Roga’s office—where a floor-to-ceiling internal window overlooked the showroom they stood in—and the simple iron door to their right led down into another full level, stocked with things that legionaries weren’t supposed to find. The enchantments on those two doors were probably even more intense than those outside.

Isaiah loosed one of his long-suffering sighs. “A murder occurred on the outskirts of the Meat Market last night. We believe you knew the victim.”

Hunt marked every reaction that flitted across her face as she maintained her perch on the edge of the desk: the slight widening of her eyes, the pause in those tapping nails, the sole blink that suggested she had a short list of possible victims and none of the options were good.

“Who?” was all she said, her voice steady. Wisps of smoke from the conical diffuser beside the computer drifted past her, carrying the bright, clean scent of peppermint. Of course she was one of those aromatherapy zealots, conned into handing over her marks for the promise of feeling happier, or being better in bed, or growing another half a brain to match the half she already had.

“Maximus Tertian,” Isaiah told her. “We have reports that you
had a meeting with him in the VIP mezzanine of the White Raven two hours before his death.”

Hunt could have sworn Bryce’s shoulders sagged slightly. She said, “Maximus Tertian is dead.” They nodded. She angled her head. “Who did it?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Isaiah said neutrally.

Hunt had heard of Tertian—a creep of a vamp who couldn’t take no for an answer, and whose rich, sadistic father had taught him well. And shielded him from any fallout from his hideous behavior. If Hunt was being honest, Midgard was better off without him. Except for the headache they’d now have to endure when Tertian’s father got word that his favored son had been killed … Today’s meeting would be just the start.

Isaiah went on, “You might have been one of the last people to see him alive. Can you walk us through your encounter with him? No detail is too small.”

Bryce glanced between them. “Is this your way of feeling out whether I killed him?”

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