Authors: Sarah J. Maas
“Just testing.” Hunt studied her glass. “If it’s drugged or poisoned, it’ll turn green.”
Ember chimed in with her approval. “The satyr said the drinks are from Juniper, but how do you know, Bryce? Anything could be in it.” Her mom nodded at Hunt. “Good thinking.”
Bryce wanted to object, but … Hunt had a point. “And what am I supposed to do with it now? It’s ruined.”
“The pill is tasteless,” Hunt said, clinking his flute against hers when the liquid remained pale gold. “Bottoms up.”
“Classy,” she said, but drank. It still tasted like champagne—no hint of the dissolved pill lingered.
The golden sconces and dangling starburst chandeliers dimmed twice in a five-minute warning, and Bryce and Hunt took their seats behind her parents. From this angle, she could barely make out Fury in the front row.
Hunt seemed to track the direction of her attention. “She didn’t want to sit with us?”
“Nope.” Bryce took in her friend’s shining dark hair, her black suit. “She wants to see every drop of Juniper’s sweat.”
“I’d think she saw that every night,” Hunt said wryly, and Bryce waggled her eyebrows.
But Ember twisted in her seat, a genuine smile lighting her face. “How are Fury and Juniper doing? Did they move in together yet?”
“Two weeks ago.” Bryce craned her neck to study Fury, who seemed to be reading the playbill. “And they’re really good. I think Fury’s here to stay this time.”
Her mom asked carefully, “And you and Fury? I know things were weird for a while.”
Hunt did her a favor and made himself busy on his phone. Bryce idly flipped the pages of her playbill. “Working things out with Fury took some time. But we’re good.”
Randall asked, “Is Axtar still doing what she does best?”
“Yep.” Bryce was content to leave her friend’s mercenary business at that. “She’s happy, though. And more important, June and Fury are happy together.”
“Good,” Ember said, smiling softly. “They make such a beautiful couple.” And because her mom was … well, her mom, Ember sized up Bryce and Hunt and said with no shame whatsoever, “You two would as well, if you got your shit together.”
Bryce slouched down in her seat, lifting her playbill to block her red-hot face. Why weren’t the lights dimming yet? But Hunt took it in stride and said, “All good things come to those who wait, Ember.”
Bryce scowled at the arrogance and amusement in his tone, throwing her playbill into her lap as she declared, “Tonight’s a big deal for June. Try not to ruin it with nonsensical banter.”
Ember patted Bryce’s knee before twisting back to face the stage.
Hunt drained his champagne, and Bryce’s mouth dried out again at the sight of the broad, strong column of his throat working as he swallowed, then said, “Here I was, thinking you loved the banter.”
Bryce had the option of either drooling or turning away, so rather than ruin her dress, she observed the crowd filtering into their seats. More than one person peered toward her box.
Especially from the Fae boxes across the way. No sign of her father or Ruhn, but she recognized a few cold faces. Tristan Flynn’s parents—Lord and Lady Hawthorne—were among them, their professional snob of a daughter Sathia sitting between them. None of the glittering nobility seemed pleased at Bryce’s presence. Good.
“Tonight’s a big deal for June, remember,” Hunt murmured, lips quirking upward.
She glowered. “What?”
Hunt inclined his head toward the Fae nobility sneering across the space. “I can see you thinking about some way to piss them off.”
“I was not.”
He leaned in to whisper, his breath brushing her neck, “You were, and I know it because I was thinking the same thing.” A few cameras flashed from above and below, and she knew people weren’t snapping photos of the stage curtain.
Bryce peeled back to survey Hunt, the face she knew as well as her own. For a moment, for a too-brief eternity, they stared at each other. Bryce swallowed, but couldn’t bring herself to move. To break the contact.
Hunt’s throat bobbed. But he said nothing more, either.
of this torture. Stupid agreement. Friends, but more. More, but without any of the physical benefits.
Hunt said at last, voice thick, “It’s really nice of you to be here for Juniper.”
She tossed her hair over a shoulder. “You’re making it sound like it’s some big sacrifice.”
He jerked his chin toward the still-sneering Fae nobility. “You can’t wear a hat and sunglasses here, so … yeah.”
She admitted, “I wish she’d gotten us seats in the nosebleed section.”
Instead, Juniper—to accommodate Hunt’s wings—had gotten them this box. Right where everyone could see the Starborn Princess and the Fallen Angel.
The orchestra began tuning up, and the sounds of slowly awakening violins and flutes drew Bryce’s attention to the pit. Her muscles tensed of their own volition, as if priming to move. To dance.
Hunt leaned in again, voice a low purr, “You look beautiful, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, even as she bit her lower lip to keep from grinning. The lights began dimming, so Bryce decided to Hel with it. “When do I get to count those abs, Athalar?”
The angel cleared his throat—once, twice—and shifted in his seat, feathers rustling. Bryce smiled smugly.
He murmured, “Four more months, Quinlan.”
“And three days,” she shot back.
His eyes shone in the growing darkness.
“What are you two talking about back there?” Ember asked, and Bryce replied without tearing her gaze from Hunt’s, “Nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing. It was the stupid bargain she’d made with Hunt: that rather than diving right into bed, they’d wait until Winter Solstice to act on their desires. Spend the summer and autumn
getting to know each other without the burdens of a psychotic Archangel and demons on the prowl.
So they had. Torturing each other with flirting was allowed, but sometimes, tonight especially … she really wished she’d never suggested it. Wished she could drag him into the coat closet of the vestibule behind them and show him precisely how much she liked that suit.
Four months, three days, and … She peeked at the delicate watch on her wrist. Four hours. And at the stroke of midnight on Winter Solstice,
would be stroking—
“Burning fucking Solas, Quinlan,” Hunt grunted, again shifting in his seat.
“Sorry,” she muttered, thankful for the second time in an hour that her parents didn’t have the sense of smell that Hunt possessed.
But Hunt laughed, sliding an arm along the back of her chair, fingers tangling in her unbound hair. He seemed contented. Assured of his place there.
She glanced at her parents, sitting with similar closeness, and couldn’t help but smile. Her mom had taken a while to act on her desires with Randall, too. Well, there’d been some initial … stuff. That was as much as Bryce let herself think about them. But she knew it had been nearly a year before they’d made things official. And they’d turned out pretty damn well.
So these months with Hunt, she cherished them. As much as she cherished her dance classes with Madame Kyrah. No one except Hunt really understood what she’d gone through—only Hunt had been at the Gate.
She scanned his striking features, her lips curving again. How many nights had they stayed up, talking about everything and nothing? Ordering in dinner, watching movies or reality shows or sunball, playing video games, or sitting on the roof of the apartment building, observing malakim and witches and draki dart across the sky like shooting stars.
He’d shared so many things about his past, sad and horrible and joyous. She wanted to know all of it. And the more she learned, the more she found herself sharing, and the more she …
Light flared from the star on her chest.
Bryce clapped a hand over it. “I shouldn’t have worn this stupid dress.”
Her fingers could barely cover the star that was blaring white light through the dim theater, illuminating every face now turned her way as the orchestra quieted in anticipation of the conductor’s approach.
She didn’t dare look toward the Fae across the space. To see the disgust and disdain.
Ember and Randall twisted in their seats, her dad’s face scrunched with concern, Ember’s eyes wide with fear. Her mom knew those Fae were sneering, too. She’d hidden Bryce from them her whole life because of how they’d react to the power that now radiated from her.
Some jackass shouted from the audience below, “
Hey! Turn off the light!
” Bryce’s face burned as a few people chuckled, then quickly went silent.
She could only assume Fury had been nearby.
Bryce cupped both hands over the star, which had taken to glowing at the
fucking times—this was merely the most mortifying. “I don’t know how to turn it off,” she muttered, making to rise from her seat and flee into the vestibule behind the curtain.
But Hunt slid a warm, dry hand over her scar, fingers grazing her breasts. His palm was broad enough that it covered the mark, capturing the light within. It glowed through his fingers, casting his light brown skin into rosy gold, but he managed to contain the light.
“Admit it: you just wanted me to feel you up,” Hunt whispered, and Bryce couldn’t help her stupid, giddy laugh. She buried her face in Hunt’s shoulder, the smooth material of his suit cool against her cheeks and brow. “Need a minute?” he asked, though she knew he was glaring daggers at all the assholes still gawking. The Fae nobility hissing about the
“Should we go?” Ember asked, voice sharp with worry.
“No,” Bryce said thickly, putting a hand over Hunt’s. “I’m good.”
“You can’t sit there like that,” Ember countered.
“I’m good, Mom.”
Hunt didn’t move his hand. “We’re used to the staring. Right, Quinlan?” He flashed Ember a grin. “They won’t fuck with us.” An edge laced his smile, a reminder to anyone watching that he wasn’t only Hunt Athalar, he was also the Umbra Mortis. The Shadow of Death.
He’d earned that name.
Ember nodded again approvingly as Randall offered Hunt a grateful dip of the chin. Mercifully, the conductor emerged then, and a smattering of applause filled the theater.
Bryce inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. She had zero control over when the star flared, or when it stopped. She sipped from her champagne, then said casually to Hunt, “The headline on the gossip sites tomorrow is going to be:
Horndog Umbra Mortis Gropes Starborn Princess at Ballet
“Good,” Hunt murmured. “It’ll improve my standing in the 33rd.”
She smiled, despite herself. It was one of his many gifts—making her laugh, even when the world seemed inclined to humiliate and shun her.
His fingers went dark at her chest, and Bryce heaved a sigh. “Thanks,” she said as the conductor raised his baton.
Hunt slowly, so slowly, removed his hand from her chest. “Don’t mention it, Quinlan.”
She glanced sidelong at him again, wondering at the shift in his tone. But the orchestra began its lilting opening, and the curtain drew back, and Bryce leaned forward breathlessly to await her friend’s grand entrance.
Bryce tried not to shiver with delight when Hunt knocked her with a wing while they walked up the sagging stairs to Ruhn’s house.
A small get-together
, Ruhn had said when he’d called to invite them to swing by after the ballet. Since the thought of her mother grilling her again about her job, sex life, and princess status was sure to drive her to drink anyway, Bryce and Hunt had dumped her parents back at their hotel, changed at the apartment—Hunt had insisted on that part with a grumbled
I need to get the fuck out of this suit
—and flown over here.
The entire Old Square had apparently turned up as well: Fae and shifters and people of all Houses drank and danced and talked. On the pathetic excuse for a front lawn, a cluster of green-haired river nymphs and fauns both male and female played cornhole. A cluster of Fae males behind them—Aux members, from their muscles and stick-up-the-ass posture—were engaged in what looked like an absolutely
game of bocce.
The arid day had yielded to a whisper-sweet night, warm enough that every bar and caf
and club in the Old Square—especially around Archer Street—teemed with revelers. Even with the booming music erupting from Ruhn’s house, she could make out the thump of the bass from the other houses along the street, the bar at the corner, the cars driving by.
Everyone was celebrating being alive.
As they should be.
“Fury and June are already here,” Bryce called to Hunt over the noise as they strode up the rickety, beer-splattered steps into Ruhn’s house. “June said they’re in the living room.”
Hunt nodded, though his focus remained fixed on the partying crowd. Even here, people noted from all directions as the Starborn Princess and the Umbra Mortis arrived. The crowd parted for them, some even backing away. Bryce stiffened, but Hunt didn’t halt his easy pace. He was accustomed to this shit—had been for a while now. And though he was no longer officially the Shadow of Death, people hadn’t forgotten what he had once done. Who he’d once served.
Hunt aimed for the living room to the left of the foyer, the ridiculous muscles along his shoulders shifting with the movement. They were put on near-obscene display by the black tank top he wore. Bryce might have survived the sight of it, had it not been for the white sunball hat, twisted backward the way Hunt usually wore it.
She preferred that hat to the fancy suit, actually.
To her shock, Hunt didn’t protest when a reveling air sprite floated past, crowning him and then Bryce with glow-stick necklaces made from firstlight. Bryce removed the plastic tube of light and looped it into a bracelet snaking up her arm. Hunt left his hanging over his chest, the light casting the deep muscles of his pectorals and shoulders in stark relief. Gods spare her.
Hunt had only taken one step into the living room when Tristan Flynn’s voice boomed from the foyer behind them: “The