“You just won the dragon tournament. What are you going to do next?”
Kerrigan swatted at Clover. “Stop it. You’re ridiculous.”
“I’m not ridiculous. I’m beyond excited for my best friend.” Clover leaned back against the bar. Her dark bob hanging severely in front of her face, her smile the brightest Kerrigan had ever seen.
When Clover, Hadrian, and Darby had pulled her out of Draco Mountain, Kerrigan had tried to match their enthusiasm. A day earlier, she’d been fighting for her life in a tournament she hadn’t entered. She had ended victorious, becoming the first half-Fae full member of the Society and a dragon rider. In two week’s time, she was going to start a year of dragon training. It sounded miraculous. If only there wasn’t about a million reasons it was anything but.
“Come on, Ker,” Hadrian said. His blue hair was coifed elegantly against the golden brown of his skin. The cravat at his neck, half-undone, was the only indication of his inebriation. “Don’t look like that. We’re celebrating.”
“Agreed,” Darby said. “I’m out, aren’t I? If this isn’t a reason to overindulge, I don’t know what is.”
Darby’s midnight skin was coated in a gold shimmer, and her long black tresses gleamed in the dying firelight. She technically wasn’t even supposed to be out with them now that she was a member of a royal Bryonican family, but she’d flouted authority and gone out to celebrate.
It wasn’t every day that a Dragon Blessed from the House of Dragons became a full-fledged member of the Society—the governmental body of the city of Kinkadia and all of Alandria. Actually, it had never happened. It wasn’t even supposed to happen. The House of Dragons was a feeder program for underprivileged Fae to move up in the world. It had worked for Hadrian and Darby, but Kerrigan wasn’t like her friends. She was only half-Fae, and no one had wanted her.
“Seriously, you need to let the last forty-eight hours go and have another drink,” Clover said, pushing an ale toward her. “Everyone else is buying anyway.”
Which was true. The dragon tournament was the most lauded event in Alandrian history. The winners were treated like heroes, and everyone wanted to celebrate, which meant drink after drink after drink. She could feel that she had overindulged.
“My head is already spinning,” she said with a laugh.
Hadrian rolled his eyes. “When has that ever stopped you?”
She raised a pint to him. “Fair point.”
Kerrigan tipped back the ale and took a long drink. It was the good stuff. Not the swill she and Clover normally drank in the Wastes. No, tonight, they’d had to forgo the underground pit, where Clover worked as a card dealer, for a more reputable tavern. They’d ended up in The Dragon Scales on the Square in Central Kinkadia. It was fancier than anywhere but a royal home but still just a tavern. The same sort of customers and the same sort of drink.
Kerrigan set her half-finished drink on the bar and forced down a yawn. She was about to suggest that they all join the dancing outside when a man sent her drink sprawling.
“Scales,” Kerrigan gasped. She jumped away from the spilled ale, but it was too late. The drink coated her dress and down one side of her body.
“Hey, watch what you’re doing!” Clover snarled at the man.
The man stood to his considerable height, more than a head taller than Kerrigan. His ears were severely pointed, a clear indicator that he was full-blooded Fae. His skin was creamy white and eyes the darkest brown, and he was currently glaring at Kerrigan, having already discarded Clover’s comment.
“Your kind isn’t welcome in this establishment,” he said coldly.
Kerrigan straightened up. “My kind?”
“We’ve been here all night,” Hadrian said as if he hadn’t heard the insinuation about her being half-Fae. “If you have a problem with that, then you can go somewhere else.”
“They should never defile the Society halls with someone like you, leatha.”
A sharp intake of breath was heard all around Kerrigan. A buzzing filled her ears at the horrid word. It was ancient Fae language, originally meaning half-Fae, but modern connotation had made it a slur, more commonly meaning half-breed bitch. It wasn’t slung around in polite society.
Most people in this fancy tavern probably hadn’t heard it spoken aloud, except in jest. Not that Kerrigan ever found those jests funny. But Kerrigan had heard the word enough not to flinch from it.
“Creative,” she crooned. She was too tipsy for this. “I’m so glad that you don’t get a vote.”
He took a menacing step forward, but she just laughed. It was the wrong move. She had known it somewhere deep in her brain that laughing at this man would provoke him, but did he think he was frightening? She’d won the dragon tournament, and not that he knew this, but she was a prized fighter in the Wastes. He couldn’t touch her. His overconfidence was almost endearing, if not suicidal.
“I’ll give you something to laugh at,” he said and then threw his fist toward her face.
She was drunk, not incapacitated.
She fluidly slid out of his reach. Her reflexes were a half-second slower than normal, but it wasn’t like he was Prince Fordham Ollivier. Fordham was the only person besting her four out of five bouts. This was just a Fae male who thought he was better than her.
The male overcorrected for the missed punch and tried to throw another one. She caught his fist in her hand and wrenched it sideways. He cried out.
“That isn’t very nice,” she slurred slightly. “Someone should teach you some manners.”
She jerked the man forward, bringing her knee up to his face with a satisfying crunch. Then, she threw him to the ground at her feet. She could have finished it then with the adrenaline coursing through her, but Darby put a hand on her shoulder.
“Kerrigan, everyone’s watching,” she whispered.
She came back to herself then, stepping away from the man. Her hands were shaking from the fight. It had happened in a matter of seconds, and she hadn’t even needed to use her magic. But this wasn’t the kind of place that erupted into brawls. The room had quieted, and all eyes were on her. They hadn’t seen this brute attack her, but they’d sure seen her finish it. Were they seeing a Society member enacting justice? Or a half-Fae getting revenge, knowing that no one could stop her now?
She shook her head and backed away from the man on the ground. He’d earned his beating, but she couldn’t be the pit fighter anymore. She had to uphold the Society laws. Gods, she’d messed up.
And the fire in the man’s eyes said that he hated her all the more. Just like these entitled Fae males always did.
“Let’s get out of here,” Clover said. Her hand landed on Kerrigan’s pale, freckled arm, still sticky with ale.
“Maybe I should …”
Hadrian shook his head. “Leaving is the right call.”
Kerrigan shot an apologetic look to the bartender, a middle-aged woman. She smiled back kindly as Kerrigan slid a dozen marks on the bar. “For the trouble.”
She waved Kerrigan off. “I saw what happened. Wouldn’t be the first time he needed a good beating.”
Kerrigan laughed tightly at the words and then let her friends pull her out of the crowded bar. The noise had returned to the establishment, and the brute had picked himself off of the ground, but Kerrigan still felt uneasy.
“I didn’t handle that right,” she said with a hand to her temple.
“You handled him just fine,” Clover said.
“You should have let it go,” Darby whispered. Clover glared at her. All of the usual flirtatious looks between them had evaporated in the last week. Kerrigan didn’t know what it meant, but she didn’t like it. Darby held up her hands. “What he did and said was terrible, but she’s a Society member now. That means something. She can’t get involved in bar fights.”
Clover opened her mouth to argue, but Kerrigan stopped her. “She’s right. I’m going to be held to a higher standard.”
“So, you just have to deal with people like him insulting you?” Clover asked.
Kerrigan shrugged. “I don’t know. This has never happened before. There’s never been a half-Fae Society member. Let alone one who earned her spot below the age requirement, who hadn’t officially entered, who didn’t have a tribe, and who was part of the House of Dragons.”
“It is unprecedented,” Hadrian agreed as they set off around the busy Square. A bonfire blazed at the center, and groups danced merrily late into the evening. “But he was wrong for saying something.”
“Whatever you say, sweetheart,” Clover said, purposely antagonizing Hadrian, as she always did.
“So, what should we do with the rest of our night?” Kerrigan asked before Hadrian could retaliate.
“Wastes!” Clover cried.
Darby yawned and put a hand to her mouth to cover it. “I think I’m done for the evening. Maybe we should all say good night. Don’t you have to leave in the morning, Kerrigan?”
Kerrigan frowned at the words. She did have to leave in the morning. But she didn’t want to think about it. It was half the reason that she’d allowed her friends to cajole her out into celebrating. Tomorrow, she would be leaving for the House of Shadows with Fordham. And he wasn’t out here tonight with her because things were complicated, to say the least.
“I’m not ready to go back,” Kerrigan said.
“But …” Darby began.
Hadrian put his hand on her arm to silence her. “Whatever you want to do, Ker.”
“Let’s go to the Wastes. No one cares that you’re a half-Fae there,” Clover said.
It was a lie. Someone always cared. But it was the closest thing she had to sanctuary.
“All right,” Kerrigan said. “Sure.”
“I’m going to escort Darby back,” Hadrian said. Such an official way of bowing out of the Wastes. He hated it there.
“Scared, sweetheart?” Clover taunted.
Hadrian leveled her with a gaze. “Some of us have standards.”
“Leave it,” Kerrigan said, in no mood to fight. “We’re still celebrating.”
She hugged Darby and Hadrian, telling them to get home safe, and then headed out of the Square with Clover.
“Must you antagonize him?” she asked as they threaded out of Central and to the Dregs—the primarily human slums in the north and western part of the valley that housed the city of Kinkadia.
“I must,” Clover said with a laugh.
As soon as they crossed the border into the Dregs, Clover pulled a cigarette out and lit up. Clover’s cigarettes were laced with loch—the most addictive drug on the market and the only thing that kept back the debilitating pain from which she suffered. Clover’s hands immediately stopped shaking. She’d gone too long without, but she couldn’t exactly smoke loch in the Square.
They were silent as the streets grew narrower and filthier and darker. More and more people were crammed in less space. Taverns were on every corner, blaring with music and laughter. Everyone worked harder and played harder here. Human life spans were so much shorter than the Fae that it was inevitable.
Kerrigan walked into the opening arms of the Wastes. It was a multilevel pit with a floor for drinking, gambling, whores, loch dens, and at the very bottom was the Dragon Ring, where she had fought with magic for the last year of her life. It was where she had met Basem Nix, the leader of the Red Masks. He tried to ruin her life after losing to a half-Fae. He slung the same slur in her face as the man in the tavern. The same ignorance made him rise up against her after she won the tournament. They’d fought not two days ago, and now, he was awaiting trial in the Draco Mountain dungeons. And it had all started here.
Kerrigan received the same reception in the Wastes that she had at The Dragon Scales. Except here, the clientele was predominantly human and half-Fae, and she was their real champion.
As she passed through the cheering crowd, she found a frowning Dozan Rook, the king of the Wastes.
“Red,” he said, slipping his hands into the pockets of his black pants. He was in a full suit with a red cravat at his throat. His burnished hair shone in the light, and his all-knowing golden eyes stared back at her. As menacing and handsome as she had ever seen him.
“Your champion has arrived,” she said with her arms wide.
He arched one perfect eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re out on a victory parade.”
“Why? Don’t I deserve to celebrate?”
His lip quirked at the side as he stepped into her personal space. She fought the urge to step backward. She’d been obsessed with Dozan once. He’d even offered her a place at his side as the queen of the Wastes. She knew he only wanted her for her power, but the connection they’d always shared didn’t go away with the logic.
“You deserve everything that’s coming to you,” he said sensually.
“That sounds ominous.”
“Still took down a Fae male twice my size.”
“I thought you’d have already run back to your mountain.” His eyes trailed over her face, as if awaiting an answer she didn’t know how to give. “Considering Basem Nix just turned up dead.”
“What?” Kerrigan gasped.
Her mind was spinning. She needed to sober up immediately because she absolutely could not have heard Dozan correctly. Basem Nix was in the Draco Mountain dungeons. The only people with access to him were Society members. The guards were the best of the best and acquiesced to binding spells to prevent any sabotage. It was impossible to infiltrate. Except …
“Ah, you’ve reached the same conclusion that I did,” Dozan said as if he could read her mind.
“He can’t be dead.”
Dozan smirked, a dark, dangerous thing that she’d once adored. “Not if your precious Society is everything that you think it is.”
“The only people who can get into those dungeons are …”
“Society members,” he finished for her.
“Gods,” she breathed.
She put her hand to it to try to stop the buzzing in her head and the dizzy feeling creeping through her limbs. How much had she had to drink at The Dragon Scales? More than normal, that was for sure, but it wasn’t like she’d had faerie punch. It was a dangerous magical concoction that lowered inhibitions. She’d tried them all for fun, and this headache blossoming behind her eyes reminded her of the green kind she’d had a few summers ago with Lyam. She winced at that recollection of her murdered friend. Another casualty of Basem Nix.
“I have to go,” she said at once, turning to Clover.
Clover’s eyes were wide. “What’s wrong?”
She blinked to right her vision. “I need to get back to the mountain.”
“But we just got here, and it’s your last night in town,” Clover said.
Dozan shifted behind her. “Your last night?”
Kerrigan ignored him. He had to have known that she was leaving with Fordham in the morning. He just wanted to have it out with her about joining the House of Shadows, a place that hated humans and half-Fae alike. No, not just hated them, that tortured and killed them. A thousand years ago, the Society had reviled the House of Shadows so much for their continued enslavement of the humans and half-Fae that they went to war against them—the Great War. The House of Shadows had lost and were trapped forever behind a hidden magical barrier. Until Fordham appeared in the dragon tournament.
Now in a twist of fate, Kerrigan was one of them, and the House of Shadows beckoned. It had been the right decision at the time. Between a lifetime in Bryonica, chained to a life she’d been discarded from by her father at five years old, or a new life with Fordham, she’d chosen Fordham. Even though now, things were problematic.
Kerrigan turned to leave, but Dozan reached out quick as a viper and latched on to her arm. The one still sticky with ale. His face showed distaste. “You can’t go run off into the night alone.”
“And why not?”
He removed his hand from her, brushing it against a handkerchief from his pocket. “Don’t you remember what happened when you went off alone after the last tournament?”
Kerrigan glared right back at him. Didn’t she remember? How could she forget? She’d been twelve years old when the first human in history had won the dragon tournament and then left the next day. Kerrigan had gone out to celebrate the victory, was cornered by a group of Red Masks, and brutally assaulted. She’d thought for so long that Dozan had saved her that night, but it turned out that she’d saved herself by the force of her own magic.
That was the night of her first vision. The night of her first using her spirit magic. The start of everything to come.
But things were different now. She was a fighter, a skilled magic user, a member of the Society. Not that she was naive enough to believe that would protect her, but it was not the same as it had been five years ago. She’d made sure of that.
“I’ll be fine.”
Dozan nodded his head at Clover. “Go with her. Ensure she makes it safe.”
“What is Clover going to do that I can’t?” Kerrigan demanded. She winced at Clover’s irritated face. “Nothing against you, Clove.”
Clover was a hundred percent perfectly human. She didn’t have a lick of magic in her veins. Few did in Alandria. Even most half-Fae only had enough for parlor tricks. Kerrigan was an anomaly because she was strong enough with all four elements to join the Society. Another target on her back.
“She can watch your back,” Dozan said. His finger slipped down her jaw, tilting her head up to look into his bright eyes.
“Dozan,” she growled.
He grinned wickedly and released her. “Do try to stay out of trouble and come back to me in one piece, Red.”
“I’m not coming back to you.” She huffed at the insufferable arrogance and then tipped her head at Clover. “Let’s go.”
She refused to look back as they left the Wastes the way they’d come in. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She also didn’t want him to see how much she was flagging. Those drinks had really knocked her on her ass. Maybe it was better to have Clover with her.
“And you get on me for antagonizing Hadrian,” Clover said with a snort.
“Dozan is … Dozan.”
“Yeah, and he wants you bad.” She whistled low.
“He wants my power. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“That’s not what you were saying a year ago when you ended up in his bed.”
Clover cackled. “All right. I’ll leave it be, but one day, you two are going to have to figure out this sexual tension. It’s uncomfortable to be around.”
Kerrigan rolled her eyes. “That’s not what’s important right now. It’s that Basem Nix is dead.”
“Gods,” she whispered.
Kerrigan couldn’t have said it better herself. The gods themselves needed to answer for this crime after all Kerrigan had gone through to get him in prison. There would be no public trial to show the world that what he’d done was wrong. He’d be buried six feet under with no justice.
They passed out of the Dregs and back down the main thoroughfare through Central. Kinkadia was made up of six main quadrants—Dregs, Central, Row, Riverfront, Artisan Village, and Draco Mountain. Row lay to the east, filled with wealthy, aristocratic mansions and sprawling parks. The Riverfront spread across the South River. The newly wealthy who couldn’t gain access on the Row were building copycat homes along the waterfront. To the southeast was one of Kerrigan’s favorite parts of the city—Artisan Village—with the Opera house, bookstores, and little Painter’s Row. Finally, they came upon Draco Mountain—the home of the Society and dragons as well as the tournament arena. It was the largest peak in the semicircle of mountains that surrounded the Kinkadian valley. And it was home.
“Never gets old,” Clover whispered as they stared up at the heights of the mountain.
“It really doesn’t.”
“I’ll leave you here. I’ll miss you while you’re gone.”
Clover bounced back and forth on her feet, as if she were actually anxious. Kerrigan smiled and threw her arms around her friend.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
“You’d better be. Dozan said those things to rile you up, but don’t let your guard down in the House of Shadows. I want you to come home.”
“I won’t let my guard down.”
“This thing with Fordham …”
Kerrigan shook her head and took a step back. “I don’t want to talk about Fordham.”
“You’re going to be alone with him for two weeks.”
Clover sighed. “Okay. But I’ll kick his ass if he doesn’t take care of you.”
Kerrigan laughed. “I’d like to see that.”
Kerrigan hugged her again and then hurried toward the mountain before she could get sappy. It was two weeks. How bad could it be?
Kerrigan’s steps slowed as she approached the front entrance to the mountain. A few days ago, she’d thought that she would leave the mountain behind, join a tribe, and become a full citizen. Now, the mountain was her forever home. So much had changed in so little time that it was hard to believe any of it was true. One day, she had been discreetly deposited into the care of the House of Dragons by her father. Twelve years later, she was a Society member.
Thinking of her father—Kivrin Argon, First of the House of Cruse—only soured her mood further. He was next in line for one of the four ruling families of Bryonica, and she’d been a princess, the lost Princess Felicity. Everyone had been looking for her after her “disappearance.” Unbeknownst to them, her father knew precisely where she was. He’d left her there himself before the softly pointed ears that revealed that she was half-Fae were visible. She’d hidden her heritage from all but her closest friends for twelve years, and now, her secret was out. She was almost happy to be out of Kinkadia to avoid Bryonican royals and the upcoming Season.
She nodded at the guards at the entrance and then headed toward the dungeons. If news had already reached Dozan, from his spies inside the mountain, then others likely had already heard as well. Her first indication that something was wrong was the increase in guards. Guards patrolled inside Draco Mountain but not like this. She saw more guards here that she didn’t recognize than she did. She didn’t know what use it would be if the person who had murdered Basem Nix was a Society member. Guards didn’t even usually have much magic. Just enough to keep the populace in check.
“Where do you think you’re going?” a guard asked, stopping her at the entrance to the dungeons.
“Official Society business.”
The guard looked skeptical. Kerrigan didn’t blame her. Not only was she drunk, but she was also an underage half-Fae. Her eyes darted to Kerrigan’s softly pointed ears and back.
“I’ll look the part when I get my black robes,” she half-joked.
“Oh,” the guard said, hastily stepping back. “I didn’t realize it was you.”
Kerrigan shot her a hopefully warm smile before careening down the stairs. The temperature dropped precipitously, the farther she wound her way deeper into the dungeons. Kerrigan hadn’t been here in years. Lyam had dared her to run to the bottom of the dungeons one summer. She’d done so just to taunt him. But they’d also thought that the dungeons were empty. She shuddered at the thought of the man she’d found with his guts hanging out.
She gagged on the memory. Lyam had wanted to prove he could do it, too, but she hadn’t let him go. That was back before Lyam had confessed his feelings for her, back when he’d been the fourth member of their quartet, back when he’d been alive.
Voices drifted up out of the gloom, bringing her back into the present. Lyam was gone. His compass still tucked away in her pocket. There was nothing she could do to change that, but Basem’s death was a different story. A new mystery for her to solve.
“Yes, Corinna. Thank you so much for your assistance,” someone said. “We have all that we need here. I’ll let you continue with your investigation.”
“Thank you, Bastian,” Mistress Corinna said. Corinna was the current Chief of the Guard. She’d vouched for Kerrigan before the council when her place in the Society was being debated. “I have my best men here. We’ll find who did this.”
Kerrigan surreptitiously rounded the corner and found Master Bastian and Mistress Hellina standing before Mistress Corinna. Both Bastian and Helly were on the Society council—the highest rank of any member. Bastian had been a dragon tournament adjudicator this year, as Helly had been five years ago.
She was still listening in on the conversation when her foot slipped on the last step. “Scales,” she hissed under her breath.
But it was enough.
Helly whipped around, and when she saw Kerrigan, she sighed heavily. “Kerrigan, what are you doing here?”
Kerrigan straightened and marched forward with what she hoped looked like purpose. “I heard what happened.”
“And how did you hear that?” Helly asked. “We haven’t even announced anything yet.”
“Isn’t that her specialty?” Bastian asked with a warm smile.
“Sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong?”
Kerrigan shrugged. She wasn’t about to say that Dozan Rook had told her. They couldn’t hope to purge all his spies. “This concerns me.”
“It does not,” Helly said. Then, she wrinkled her nose. “Are you drunk?”
“Uh, a bit tipsy,” Kerrigan confessed.
Bastian laughed softly. “You can’t blame her, Hellina. You couldn’t even stand on two feet after you celebrated your tournament win.”
She flashed him an irritated look. Black thumbprints from exhaustion were apparent under her eyes. She’d been running herself ragged with the Basem investigation, and now, it was all starting again. “That is beside the point.”
Corinna covered a laugh with a cough.
“Is he really dead?” Kerrigan asked.
Helly sighed and put a hand on Kerrigan’s shoulder. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Did we at least get any information from him about the Red Masks before this?”
Corinna shook her head. “No. Nothing.”
“This was an inside job,” Kerrigan told them.
“Yes, we came to that conclusion,” Helly said. “And no, you are not part of this investigation. You will let the Society handle it this time.”
“I’m part of the Society now.”
“You have a year of training first. And if I’m not mistaken, you are leaving in the morning.”
“It’s not a crime that she’s invested,” Bastian said. Helly shot him a look full of wrath. But he dismissed her concerns. “I am not suggesting she delay her travels or training, just that you cannot expect her to have no feelings on the matter. She is the one who brought him in.”
Helly nodded. “How about this? I will keep you up to date on the investigation.”
“I would appreciate that.” Kerrigan paused for a moment before leaving. She should let it go, but a part of her couldn’t do it yet. “Are you going to question Society members too?”
Helly and Bastian shared a look.
“We’re still discussing it,” Bastian told her. “But we will do our due diligence.”
Society members were supposed to be above reproach. There should have been no reason to think otherwise. But this death was proof that someone in the Society was involved. Because there was only one reason to kill a man in these dungeons—to keep him from spilling your secrets.
Bang, bang, bang, bang.
Kerrigan felt every vibration of the fist against her door inside her skull. She groaned dramatically, covering her eyes with her forearm as she rolled over.
“Go away,” she muttered.
Her mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls. Her eyes burned. At any moment, she might expel the entire contents of her stomach. Every single part of her body ached from head to toe. Normally, she’d have Darby create some kind of herbal potion to help with the hangover. Except Darby was no longer her roommate. She lived in a Row mansion, which meant there was no cure for this terrible feeling.
Bang, bang, bang, bang.
Kerrigan cursed the gods as she dragged her body out of bed. She ran a hand back through the frizz of her curly red hair. Sure that it looked like a rat’s nest. Then, she swung the door open.
“Can you keep it down?”
Her eyes moved up, up, up the layers of black silk to the Fae male towering over her in her doorway. It was a sin for someone to look like Prince Fordham Ollivier this early in the morning. He was six and a half feet of solid muscle with black hair that fell forward into his gray eyes, which were currently set on thunderstorm as they glared down at her. He radiated sinister energy, as if something dark and malevolent were trapped under his skin, so pale that it was near translucent. But Kerrigan had promptly gotten over the anger when he didn’t immediately try to kill her. Though he looked like he might try today.
“What are you still doing in bed?” he demanded.
She put her hand up and waved it downward in the general note of keeping it down. “Too loud.”
His grip tightened on the door until the wood creaked. “What in the gods’ names did you do last night?”
“I might have had a drink.” She let her emerald-green eyes meet his, squinting into the hallway light. “Or two.”
“Or ten,” he growled. “You’re a mess.”
“I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours.”
She started to close the door in his face, but he slammed his hand on it, keeping it open.
“We were supposed to leave twenty minutes ago. If you’re not ready in a half hour, I’m leaving without you.”
“Fine. That sounds nice.”
He blew out an exasperated breath. “Why are you always so much trouble?”
“It’s what makes me so endearing, princeling.”
He closed his eyes and took a breath. “Half an hour, Kerrigan, and then we’re going to the House of Shadows. You need to be ready.”
Then, he stalked away from her, leaving her floundering with the door. She glared after him. It would have been nice to stay within the confines of the mountain, where she was safe. Except she wasn’t safe. If there was someone working with Basem Nix within these walls, no one was safe.
Not that it’d be better in the House of Shadows. She’d be lucky if she ever came out of there again. She could snub Fordham, but despite their problems, she owed him. He’d offered her a spot in the House of Shadows when he could have left her to languish in Bryonican high society. It didn’t redeem him of everything else though.
He’d lied to her the entire time they were together. He’d been exiled from his people and decided to join the dragon tournament to earn a place back in the House of Shadows. It was the only reason he’d been able to leave the magical spell that had trapped them. Neither of them knew what would happen next. If they’d welcome him back. If he’d be able to leave again. Where it put them.
Kerrigan cursed again.
She didn’t want to think about them. And the fact that there was no them.
But she couldn’t stay here even if she was mad at him. She was a member of the House of Shadows. She wouldn’t let Fordham face it alone.
So, she changed into her traveling gear, plaited her obnoxiously tangled hair down her back, and grabbed the bag she’d packed yesterday. She opted not to eat anything. Not with how her stomach was behaving. Then, she headed up to the dragon aerie. The brighter and brighter it got, the worse her eyes watered, and the more painful her headache, but she hadn’t doubted Fordham when he said that he would leave her. He was a man of his word… until he wasn’t.
Kerrigan eased past the row of dragons. Some of them said hello as she passed, but most were still sleeping. Then, she found her dragon.
It was still unbelievable to even think that at all. She’d loved flying from the moment she arrived in the House of Dragons. She’d thought that her last flight was a month ago, and now, she had her own dragon that she could fly whenever she wanted.
“Morning, Tieran,” she said as she approached the midnight-blue dragon.
He was small for his kind, smaller even than normal, but he was quick and determined.
Ah, so Fordham got your lazy self out of bed, he spoke directly into her mind.
And also a jerk.
She sighed. She wasn’t ready to deal with Tieran’s behavior today. They’d never liked each other, and honestly, she still didn’t know why he’d picked her in the dragon tournament. He could have had Fordham or any of the other competitors. Instead, he’d picked her. So, here they were.
“Let’s get this over with,” she told him.
She could have sworn that he rolled his gold slitted eyes as he turned away from her.
“You made it,” Fordham said stiffly.
He’d thrown a thick cloak over his silks. Even in the heart of summer, it was cold in the skies. She’d forgotten hers. Great.
“I’m all ready to go.”
Fordham reached into his pack and tossed her a cloak. “Figured you’d forget yours.”
She bit her lip. “Thanks.”
Their eyes met across the short distance. Tension sparked between them. She wanted to go to him, to bridge that space, like they had in the gazebo of her father’s Row mansion. The taste of his lips still lingered. After a month of her visions constantly pulling them together, them learning not to hate each other and then to trust each other, only for her to be rejected …
It still panged in her chest when she looked at him. He’d wanted it too. She knew that he had, but it couldn’t happen. Fordham was cursed to hurt anyone he cared about. Even though she would risk it for him, he wouldn’t risk it for her. And didn’t that make all the difference?
She averted her gaze and settled instead on his dragon. “Good morning, Netta.”
The red-jeweled dragon inclined her head. Kerrigan, it’s always a pleasure.
See, why couldn’t she have gotten Netta as her dragon? Netta was as mischievous as Kerrigan had ever been. They would have been a perfect pair.
“Let’s get going. We have a few hours in the skies before we reach the House of Shadows,” Fordham said.
Kerrigan secured her pack to Tieran’s back. Fordham must have already attached a saddle for her comfort. Her throat tightened up, and she tried to ignore how much she wanted to fix this between them. But it couldn’t be fixed. That much was clear.
“Did you hear about what happened last night?”
“Beyond your inebriation?” Fordham asked.
“Basem was found dead in the dungeons.”
His head snapped to her. “What? When?”
“Last night, when I got back in, I went down to speak with Helly and Bastian about it.”
He withdrew into himself. “There is a plant inside the Society.”
She nodded. “That’s what I think too. Helly told me not to get involved.”
He rolled his eyes. “Good luck with that.”
“I guess it’s good that we’re going away for two weeks.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll have caught the person by the time we return.”
Or we could not go.
But she didn’t offer the alternative. Fordham needed to go home, and she needed to see the tribe that she had sworn herself to.
“Let’s hope,” she said. “I’d like someone else to step up once in a while.”
He just sighed. “Get on your dragon.”
She laughed at his exasperation. “So, where exactly is the House of Shadows?”
The archives of the thirteenth tribe had been stricken from record. Their magicked home erased from maps and memory. Only high-ranking Society members had access to that knowledge and unsuspecting humans who wandered across the spell line.
“North,” Fordham said before vaulting onto Netta’s back.
“North,” she muttered. “Right. Super helpful.”
“You’ll know when you need to know.”
“I’m a member of the House of Shadows now,” she grumbled. “You could just tell me.”
“You’re not actually.”
Kerrigan froze with her hand on Tieran’s leg. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re not a member of the House of Shadows.”
“But you said to the council …”
“What they wanted to hear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You cannot be a member until you swear fealty to my father, King Samael Ollivier.” He paused, looking momentarily forlorn. “And he accepts you into his court.”
Kerrigan gulped. “You didn’t say that your dad had to accept me.”
“What would have been the point?”
“What if he rejects me?”
Fordham shrugged. “We won’t let that happen.”
Kerrigan blinked up at him, her headache now the least of her worries. She put her foot into Tieran’s leg and hoisted herself into the saddle. She wobbled slightly and felt her stomach clench. She tightened her grip on the pommel.
If you throw up on me, then you will be walking to the House of Shadows, Tieran said irritably.
“Noted,” she grumbled.
Netta took the lead, gliding toward the exit and then flying out the entrance. Tieran followed behind her. Normally, this was Kerrigan’s favorite part—the first free fall into oblivion before they leveled off—but today, it was the last thing she wanted. She should have given up a few extra minutes to run to the infirmary for something to settle her stomach. But it was too late now.
“Take it easy,” she pleaded with Tieran, but he either didn’t hear her or didn’t care.
He vaulted off of the stone opening in the mountain. He tucked his wings in tight to his body as they plummeted hundreds of feet toward the surface of the valley. Kerrigan’s stomach rose to her throat. She closed her eyes and held on for dear life, hoping that she wouldn’t unleash the drink from last night onto her dragon. She didn’t doubt that he wouldn’t let her ride the rest of the way.
Then, at the last second, his wings exploded out of him, and they rose as he caught the wind. Going up might be worse, as it jolted her stomach down toward her toes. She leaned hard against the saddle, running her hands along his cool scales to try to settle herself as they pulled up into a glide off of Netta’s right wing.
“That was not nice,” she groaned.
Tieran’s body rumbled, as if he was laughing at her. Ass.
If they were bonded, as they were supposed to be, he would have been able to feel her discomfort. He wouldn’t have tried something like that because he would have suffered too. But nothing had gone how it was supposed to.
At the bonding ceremony, they had both drunk the potion that would connect them for life. She went under and saw a vision of her father being beaten by a large man in a white toga. She’d never seen anyone like that before, and when she tried to get the man to stop, he looked at her. She had no idea what any of that meant, but as soon as she returned to herself, she knew it had gone wrong. She and Tieran hadn’t bonded.
They couldn’t tell anyone either. He would have been sent back to the Holy Mountain without getting a dragon rider, and no one had wanted her to have a dragon in the first place. They’d use any excuse to kick her out. So, they had to keep this secret to themselves and hope they survived dragon training together.
Kerrigan had doubts about that, but first, she had to survive the House of Shadows.
House of Shadows
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