PURSUING FLIGHT

Pursuing Flight, an urban fantasy / paranormal romance and the fourth book in the Dragon Spirit series by C.I. Black

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PURSUING FLIGHT
A Dragon Spirit Novel: Book 4

Their connection is as wild as their magic… and just as dangerous.

Nero survived the loss of his inamorata by the skin of his dragon-spirit’s teeth. Since then he’s focused every ounce of his power — magical and political — on hoarding the most unlikely of treasures: innocent human mages. Rescuing them instead of following orders to murder them.

Now his secret, forbidden coterie is under threat from Rebecca Scott. Victim. Soldier. Mage unaware. A woman trapped in a tortuous lab experiment, whose pain and terror echo down the unbreakable cords binding them together.

Unsure if her hell is real or a PTSD-induced nightmare, Becca jumps at one slim chance to escape the sadistic white-coats probing her broken psyche, following a strange, alluring voice throbbing from somewhere deep in her bones.

When Becca’s desperation yanks Nero to her side, he makes a staggering discovery. This courageous, half-crazed woman is, impossibly, his second inamorata. But even if she gets her wish to carve their souls apart, it’s too late for him. If her heart stops, so will his… and everyone under his protection, human and dragon, will be lost.

PROLOGUE

Becca drew her knees tighter to her body and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t care how vulnerable the position made her look. It only mattered that she hold onto herself, and please, somehow let her physical grip strengthen her mental grip.

Just hold on. That was all she had to do. Hold on. Her name was Becca Scott. Captain Rebecca Ann Scott. Not Lash or Kopis or Styx.

Rebecca Ann Scott.

She was a soldier, a granddaughter, a friend. A human.

God, she was human!

Dragons weren’t real. Magic wasn’t real. And she wasn’t losing pieces of her soul, everything that made her her.

This was a nightmare. Just a nightmare. If she could just wake up, she’d be back in Kandahar with her brothers-in-arms, exhausted and wound tight, gathering intelligence on Taliban positions—

Except that wasn’t right. She’d gone home. One tour as a peacekeeper in East Timor and almost two in Afghanistan, and she’d had enough.

No. It hadn’t been the tours that had ended her military career. It had been a teen with a backpack full of explosives, a crowded village market, and a tent being used as a makeshift school. The ambush on her unit, with RPGs tearing into both her light tactical transport vehicles and a sniper picking them off as they scrambled for cover, might not have pushed her over the edge. But she could still hear those people in the market screaming and the kids in the school tent wailing after the explosion — timed just before the first RPG hit her first transport — and there hadn’t been a damned thing she could have done about it. They’d walked into a trap. Someone had tipped off the Taliban that she was planning on convincing the village chief to share intel, and they’d retaliated.

Right. She’d gone home to Toronto…

Had she?

She couldn’t remember. Monsters had ripped through her soul, tearing at her essence with an agony that made the shrapnel, burns, and gunshot wounds from that ambush pale in comparison. She was helpless to stop them, just like she’d been helpless to stop that teen.

Everyone in position around the feast hall, a masculine voice growled. The voice. Somehow, in the unreality of nightmares, this monster was different from the others. He wasn’t inside her body, clawing at her soul. He was in her head, talking to the devil and ordering kidnappings and assassinations.

Diablo, get eyes on Zenobia. Incapacitate if possible. Regis will want to sentence her himself.

Yes. Make Zenobia pay. She was the monster queen the others — the ones who tore at Becca from the inside out — obeyed and feared.

Except Zenobia wouldn’t meet justice. That didn’t exist, because this wasn’t real. It was a dream, a nightmare.

It had to be a nightmare. PTSD. Something. Anything. It couldn’t be real.

Life would be normal. Fine. If she just woke up.

God. Please. Wake up.

She jerked awake. Pain snapped through her skull, but the nightmare didn’t vanish. Her pulse raced and the vise around her chest tightened. She was still trapped in a dimly lit, fifteen-by–fifteen foot cell, with an impossible stone lattice blocking the entrance. The semi-catatonic man who’d been in the corner since her arrival was still there, in a puddle of his own filth, still rocking back and forth and still softly weeping. The nine others — seven men, two women — also remained—

No. One of the men was missing.

She tried to think of his name but couldn’t remember it and couldn’t remember if she’d ever learned it. All she remembered was his starvation-thin features and the haunted, empty look in his eyes. The haunted guy was gone. The big guy in the corner, with shaggy light brown hair and a bushy beard — Werner — had said the haunted guy had arrived just before her, but with their inability to tell time in the cave and the missing time during the worst part of the nightmare, no one seemed to know how short or long ‘just’ was.

Except a part of her knew how long it had been. If she believed the truth of the nightmare, it had been almost six years since she’d been taken, and her dragon hosts had yet to awaken the magic promised within her aura. She also knew she was one of the lucky ones. If her aura hadn’t held such promise, she would have been killed and thrown out like trash. A vessel without magic was a waste of time.

But that didn’t make sense. That was the nightmare, the mess of thoughts and emotions that weren’t hers… couldn’t be hers.

Remember, the masculine voice said.

Becca’s breath caught in her throat. No. No no no. She was still dreaming. The devil’s master never spoke to her when she was awake. But she was still in the cell. She had to still be asleep.

Capture Zenobia.

“Make the bitch pay,” Becca hissed into the shadows.

“Another dream?” Werner asked, his voice low and difficult to understand with his thick German accent.

“The devil’s master is going after Zenobia in some feast hall.”

Glenn — a twenty-something who also looked like an island castaway and who claimed he’d been stolen from the jungles of Vietnam — barked a harsh laugh that made the weeping man in the corner moan. “Wouldn’t that be something.”

“I want your dreams,” the blond woman beside Werner said. “I’m always at the center of a—” She groaned. “In the center of a— a tornado.” She screamed, and a gust of wind exploded through the cell. It slammed Becca against the wall. The air burst from her lungs and the whirlwind whipped it away. The guy in the corner wailed, the five on the far side hit the floor, two others were wrenched to their feet and pinned to the ceiling. Werner shoved against the impossible tornado, seized the front of the woman’s soiled T-shirt, then froze.

Light flared around him and everyone else, except the weeping guy in the corner, and a weight filled Becca as if she was so exhausted she couldn’t move. Her thoughts muddled and a command within the core of her being to stand jerked her to her feet.

The tornado vanished, dropping the two against the ceiling to the floor, and in unison, with a glazed look in their eyes, everyone turned toward the entrance as the stone lattice melted into the floor.

This was it. Her chance to escape. But, like all the other times the lattice had impossibly vanished, she found herself frozen, unable to move, controlled by a monster in her head.

The vise around her chest squeezed tighter, and she fought to breathe. They were going to try to awaken her magic again. Someone was going to invade her, seize her body, and tear into her.

Wake up. Please, just wake up.

They weren’t going to activate some strange magic within her. She didn’t possess magic. Magic was impossible.

Across from them, the lattice over the other cell also melted away, and the queen monster — Zenobia — and her lieutenant strode into the hall from the far end. The lieutenant hissed a guttural word and everyone but Becca, weeping guy, and Glenn stepped into the hall, joining the others from the other cell.

Everything within Becca screamed to run. Just run. It was a dream. If she concentrated hard enough, she could escape. Or better yet, wake up. But her body wouldn’t obey. She could barely get the thought to form before it turned into mindless howling… or was that weeping guy still howling?

Zenobia flicked her wrist and the lattices swept back over the two entrances. The others marched like well-trained soldiers out of sight, and the force possessing her let go and dropped her to the floor. The weeping guy turned silent, but his rocking picked up, and Glenn moaned, his eyes unfocused…

Or was it Becca who was unfocused? Her pulse sped up, and she clung to that sensation. She lost time when she felt like this. The monster in her head thought of that time in terms of months and years. But that was the nightmare. Not reality. Not truth. Not—

Agony exploded in her head and shot like lightning through her limbs. The weeping guy screamed. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed, while Glenn howled and gripped his chest. His breath came in fast gasps like he’d been shot and was clinging to consciousness.

“Something’s happened,” Glenn said.

Someone in the hall roared. Someone else started yelling for help.

A black vortex erupted against the wall beside Glenn, and Werner leapt out as the impossible vortex vanished. He grabbed Glenn’s arm and helped him stand. “It was the Asar Nergal.”

“They know about us?” Glenn’s eyes widened. “They’re after us, like the dragons knew they would.”

“But you—” Werner’s gaze jumped to Becca and bore into her. “You knew they were going after Zenobia. You heard them.”

“I didn’t hear anything.” Because it hadn’t been real. This wasn’t real. But she couldn’t control her racing pulse. The monsters who’d been in her head knew that even trying to awaken her magic meant death for both of them. The Asar Nergal — whatever the hell they were — were merciless. They eliminated threats with extreme prejudice. And she was a threat.

“You did. We attacked the other dragons in a feast hall. But they were waiting for us, just like you said.” Werner pressed his hand against the stone wall and another vortex burst to life. He shoved Glenn inside and held out his hand to her. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Round up all the humans, the masculine voice said.

But she was certain what he really meant was kill all the humans.

Nightmare or not, there was no way she was sticking around for that.

She grabbed Werner’s hand and plunged into a black, consuming nothing.

CHAPTER 1

White lightning snapped across Nero’s sight and seared through his head. He shifted in the tub chair across from his imposing office desk, the leather squeaking with the movement. But nothing eased the agonizing magic that made him the dugga of the Asar Nergal and warned him about a human mage threat. Except his magic was wrong. It wasn’t a human who endangered his people, his coterie, and more importantly, the members of his puzur, his secret coterie — and if he was being honest with himself, his hoard since he didn’t collect anything else but these misfit humans — it was him.

And if he didn’t do something about it soon, it might be too late.

It could already be too late.

He was the reason Diablo hadn’t been able to capture the last of the mages created in Zenobia’s coup and why Capri’s Clean Team was working overtime to cover up any instances of magic to keep the human world oblivious to the truth that magic and dragons were real.

The last time humans had known about them, they’d cast a spell and destroyed dragonkind, and it had only been through the sacrifice of their goddess that dragons had managed to survive — albeit in a weakened spirit state, forced to inhabit human vessels.

Another flash of lightning in his head. He ground his teeth, knowing the magic would take him back to the woman in the hospital… yearning to go back to her.

Yes, he needed to deal with her. Killing her was the most expedient solution.

But he wasn’t that drake anymore. He didn’t just kill humans because they might become a danger. This woman needed help. If she hadn’t gone insane, unable to accept the truth about the world — or because she’d been forced to share her body with a dragon’s more powerful spirit — then she’d need help. She didn’t have to become the danger dragons feared.

Except she was a danger. She could highjack his mental connection to his Asar Nergal soldiers and warn other mages they were being hunted. As well, from the flash he’d gotten last night, whatever facility she was in, the doctor had seemed to know she could hear him. Which only complicated the situation.

Yes, that explained his lack of action — aside from the fact that he didn’t know where the woman was — there were just too many unanswered questions.

He needed more information — like, did the doctor know the truth, or was she assuming this woman suffered from auditory hallucinations? How many people knew the truth about this woman’s ability? How many people would he have to neutralize? How much of a mess would Capri and her team have to clean up? How many loose ends were there?

It was all about the logistics and nothing to do with the pain and fear and confusion that had seized him when he’d connected with the woman. He couldn’t just send in his whole team, even if the medical facility was in a secure prison lockup. Word that he was weak might make those few ambitious members in the Asar Nergal challenge him for the position of dugga. And he didn’t have the time for that.

Over the years, he might have changed how he and the Asar Nergal dealt with some of the mages they hunted — saving who they could instead of killing them — but the directive remained the same. Protect dragonkind.

Except above that, he had to protect his puzur, those humans he’d saved, and those dragons who’d embraced them as kin. And those dragons included the members of the Asar Nergal who — all who remained — had willingly broken their king’s directive, saving innocent humans instead of murdering them. If any of them thought he was weak or endangered their cause, they’d kill him and claim his rank.

This was a situation that needed to be carefully dealt with. Nero needed more information, and if he were smart, he’d deal with it himself, eliminating any chance of anyone finding out that a human could highjack the telepathy the Handmaiden had given him, which she’d sworn could only be heard by other members of the Asar Nergal.

Which only gave him more questions. Was it him? Or was the Handmaiden’s magic failing? And if the Handmaiden’s magic was failing, what did that mean?

More light seared pain through his skull, and his every muscle tensed. He fought to breathe and keep his consciousness within his body.

Not yet. Just. Not. Yet.

He needed to figure out what he was going to do. And no, it had nothing to do with the fear that once he released his magic and it connected to the woman, he’d be caught in her nightmare again.

Mother, he’d never feared that before. But then, his magic had never trapped him inside a mage’s consciousness, either. Usually he was a disembodied essence seeing the mage from afar, but last night—

Last night had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. Somehow he’d managed to keep himself mostly together in front of Raven and during the mental connection with Diablo, but he had no idea if he’d be able to do it again.

His pulse throbbed, radiating agony through his head and slicing flecks of white lightning across his sight.

Something beeped and someone moaned. His office flashed into a sterile hospital room and the beeping grew faster.

No. He wrenched the image of his office into his mind’s eye.

Someone said something, the voice muffled and tinny, as if coming from a speaker.

Not. Yet. He concentrated on his bottle of scotch, sitting on the edge of his desk. Half empty — and most of that consumption had happened last night.

Another voice. Then laughter.

The bottle snapped into focus.

“Get a room, you two,” a feminine voice said.

The hospital room vanished, and he sat gripping the arms of the chair so tight his knuckles had turned white and the muscles in his forearms cramped.

Another woman laughed. They had to be in the hall. From their footsteps, it sounded as if they were drawing closer to his study.

“We have a room, Capri,” Grey said. “And so do you. You know you’re going to get caught by one of the kids if you keep making out in the solarium.”

“They already have,” Tyler said, his reedy tenor thick with disgust. “It’s like catching your parents doing it.”

“What’s that like?” Ivy asked as the group strode past Nero’s partially opened office door.

“They say you can’t remember things,” Tyler said.

“Who says that?” Grey asked, a growl in his voice, his inamorated bond to Ivy making him overprotective.

Tyler snorted, unaware of the potential danger — still too new to the puzur to fully understand dragon behavior. “Be glad you can’t. I need to wash out my eyeballs after what I saw those two doing.”

Their voices carried down the hall toward the back of the house and the enormous kitchen. It seemed like at least one of his kids had accepted Ivy into the family. She hadn’t even been there a full day, and the puzur’s newest human member, Tyler, didn’t seem worried about the newest dragon member. Of course, that might be because Tyler still knew next to nothing about how dangerous the world actually was. Nero might have trusted Raven’s decision to tell Tyler the truth about how his father had gone crazy and killed people, but, knowing Raven, that information would have been crafted into the gentlest of blows.

Laughter burst from down the hall — the opposite direction from where the others had gone — and three of his youngest kids raced past his office. It had to be mealtime.

His gaze slid to the window and the night sky beyond.

Dinnertime?

He’d been sitting in his office all day?

He rubbed his aching temples, but the movement did nothing to ease the pain.

Mother of All, he’d been sitting there since the early morning — since the latter half of last night, really — and then the entire day. He hadn’t checked up on Raven and their new intake — a human whose pain and blazing aura promised a dangerous and powerful earth magic — and he hadn’t checked to see if Grey and Ivy had been assigned a suite and duties and been properly included in the puzur.

At the very least, he should join everyone for dinner. Even when things had been difficult, he’d always tried to participate in the evening meal. It might have been a weird human custom when he’d first tried it with the human members of his puzur, but now it was the part of the day he looked forward to.

He sat forward to rise out of the tub chair and his cell phone rang.

For a moment, he contemplated not answering, but too much was happening in the Dragon Court with Regis for him to be out of touch, and he didn’t doubt there’d be fallout from the latest mess. Hell, there was still fallout from the messes made by Zenobia and Katar over the last four weeks.

Besides, he’d never been the kind of drake to hide from his problems, and he wasn’t going to start now.

He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the call display. Not a number he recognized. Which meant it could be anyone. “What?”

“Permission to enter your house?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

White light sliced across his sight and through his head.

No… wait. Nero did recognize that voice. “Hunter?”

“Yes. I’d like permission—”

“Your inamorata is here. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t stop you from entering my house if I wanted to.” In fact, Nero was surprised Hunter hadn’t been by already. The initial bond between inamorated souls was often overwhelming. It explained why Capri and Ryan spent every night in the solarium and why, if Raven were smart — which she was — Grey and Ivy would have been given a suite in the wing opposite the kids’ wing. The need to be with your inamorata or inamorato consumed a dragon’s thoughts, made them irrational, and made them dangerous to themselves and everyone around them. Nero knew first-hand. He’d found his soul mate before the Great Scourge and had been overwhelmed with rage and grief when she hadn’t survived.

Another slice of light.

“Is that a yes?” Hunter asked.

Even with Hunter in a new body and without the agony screaming through Nero’s head, he wouldn’t have tried to stop Hunter. One, a dragon would fight to the death to protect his inamorata, and two, Hunter was and had always been a more powerful drake. Face to face, Nero’s chances were slim.

“Nero?” Hunter growled.

Shit. Right. This was bad. He was losing his concentration just trying to function past the pain. “It’s a yes.”

The black vortex of a gate formed in front of the office window, and with a whoosh of air, Hunter emerged. The red drake, in his new lean-muscled body with dark eyes and a dark buzz-cut, had an all-too-familiar aura that radiated more strength and power than it had the last time Nero had seen him — which had been when he’d quit his position as the prince’s assassin after Zenobia’s failed coup. It shocked Nero how fast Hunter’s earth magic had developed, and how it had grown stronger in only a few weeks. It was terrifying to think how powerful the red drake would be in a few years, let alone a few hundred.

Another snap of light.

Hunter’s eyes narrowed, his expression worried. “You all right?”

“Grey made it a very long day.”

“Not Grey’s fault.” Hunter’s tone darkened.

“Didn’t say it was.” Best to change the subject. Grey might have become an unofficial member of Nero’s puzur, but he was without a doubt a member of Hunter’s, and — if Hunter was even a fraction like Nero — the red drake would protect his unofficial coterie almost as aggressively as he’d protect his inamorata.

Nero jerked his chin to the open bottle of scotch on his desk. “Drink?”

Hunter’s gaze slid to the bottle and the single glass beside it, amber residue dried at the bottom.

“There’s a clean glass in the middle drawer.” Nero shifted, about to stand and get the glass, but more lightning blazed through him and he collapsed back, struggling to not look like he was in agony. “I’m surprised you’re being so formal,” he forced out. Maybe if he addressed the obvious, Hunter would go find Anaea, and Nero could get back to figuring out what the hell he was going to do.

“Grey said for a Traditionalist you were surprisingly loose on tradition, but…” Hunter gave a half-shrug that exposed his tension.

“But there are drakes calling for you to revive the Red Coterie and be doyen.”

“And a doyen doesn’t enter another doyen’s house without an invitation,” Hunter said. “Not that I’m a doyen.”

Nero snorted. “You might not have a choice in that.”

“I really hope you’re wrong.”

“And for the sake of everyone, I hope your return means you’ve found the Handmaiden.” But Nero could tell from Hunter’s grim expression he hadn’t. Which only made the situation worse, since she was the only one who could fix whatever was wrong with his dugga’s magic. It was her God damned spell in the first place, not an earth magic ability. His human body could free gate and control wind. That was it.

Hunter crossed his arms and the muscles in his jaw tensed. “I thought if I stayed away, I could focus on finding the Handmaiden.”

“But you can’t ignore the bond.” Nero hadn’t been able to either when he’d been first inamorated. “I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

Hunter snorted. “Two weeks. I lasted fourteen whole days.”

“Without any contact with her. Trust me, that’s hard.”

“Trust you?”

“And trust me when I say spend all the time you can with her.” They might be spirits now, trapped for eternity in human bodies, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be killed. And with the Handmaiden missing, if anything happened to Anaea — the only full sorcerer currently around — dragonkind was at greater risk of becoming extinct, since they needed a sorcerer to cast the rebirth spell—

Except that wasn’t true anymore. Grey had the rebirth coin. When joined with the medallion, which was enspelled to temporarily absorb and protect a dragon’s spirit, the coin helped place that spirit in a new vessel. But if the wrong dragon got his hands on the coin, he could force any drake to be reborn — a process that stripped a dragon of everything but his core essence, essentially killing him.

Jeez, he’d thought things were complicated before.

“That’s the other reason I couldn’t hold out,” Hunter said. “Grey says things at Court are a mess. If I can’t find the Handmaiden, I need to have a plan to protect Anaea and Grey and—”

“Careful, you’re sounding like a doyen.” Nero tried to smile, but the best he could manage felt more like a grimace.

“Yeah, well, I’d swear my allegiance to you if that didn’t mess you up.”

“Please don’t. I’m not sure I can handle another ancient drake in my coterie. Grey is more than enough.”

“Ha. And here I thought you were worried I’d jeopardize your position with Regis.”

“I think me just existing jeopardizes my position with Regis.” Pain sliced through his skull and for a heartbeat, the office turned into the hospital room.

“You think he suspects you’re not a Traditionalist?”

“I think he’s on the verge of going insane, like his father.” A heart monitor beeped and someone moaned.

“That’s blunt.”

Nero yanked his attention back to Hunter, but the red drake now stood with a semi-transparent hospital wall in front of him. “And dangerous, I know.”

“Any move against Regis without the Handmaiden’s backing will destabilize Court.”

The white wall turned opaque, obscuring Hunter.

Son of a—

“Court is already destabilized,” Nero said, fighting to keep his consciousness in his office.

The beeping picked up.

Not. Real, the woman’s raspy, broken alto said. I’m Becca Scott. Captain Rebecca Ann Scott. Not Lash. Not Styx. Not Kopis. I’m Becca.

Nero clenched his jaw. He had to get back to his office — although if he’d wanted proof whether this woman was a natural mage or a byproduct of Zenobia’s coup, he now had it. Those were dragon names. Which meant she’d been unnaturally created and was clinging to herself, fighting the soul sickness that threatened all mages created by unnatural means, holding on by her mental fingernails.

Becca. Scott, she growled.

“Nero?” a masculine voice asked. Hunter. In his office. Where Nero sat. Where he had to yank his consciousness back to.

I am Becca.

God, he couldn’t help her. Not right now. No matter how much he wanted to. He needed more information. He needed a plan.

Well, I didn’t ask for your help, and I don’t need it. Fear, determination, and pain roared through Nero. All hint of his office vanished, and he was wrenched into her body. Her pulse raced. The heart monitor’s beep turned wild. Her gaze slid down her arm to a wrist captured in a leather cuff, securing her to the bed. I don’t need your help. I’m not anyone else. I’m me. God, please. I’m me, and this is a nightmare. It isn’t real.

Footsteps clattered toward her, and Becca’s gaze jumped to the door. The woman in the doctor’s coat and the dark-rimmed glasses rushed to her side.

“What do you hear? What’s he saying?”

“He’s not saying anything,” Becca said.

More lightning, more blinding pain.

Where are you?

“He’s not saying anything,” she gasped.

I can’t help you if—

“You’re not real. You can’t help me.”

Pain exploded through him, and she screamed. The hospital room shattered in shards of crystalline light that sliced into his soul. He couldn’t catch his breath—

She couldn’t catch her breath?

He had no idea where he ended and she began.

Becca Scott. Becca Scott. Becca Scott.

She fought a sob—

He fought a sob?

Light and darkness battered him. He had no idea where he was or who he was.

Crack.

His head jerked back, pain bit his cheek, and the office crashed back into existence.

Anaea, her bright blue eyes wide with concern, stood in front of him, her hand raised to strike him again. Close behind her was Hunter, his expression hard.

“I’m fine,” Nero growled.

“You don’t look fine.” But Anaea dropped her hand and stepped back into Hunter’s embrace without looking for him, the action instinctual, as if they hadn’t just spent two weeks apart and were still fully connected to each other. “Raven said—”

“Raven and I are going to have a conversation about sharing personal information.”

Anaea cocked an eyebrow and glared at him. “She’s worried, and she’s busy with the new mage. I said I’d help.”

“What the hell was that?” Hunter asked. “You were convulsing.”

“Another good reason to find the Handmaiden.” Nero rubbed his cheek. He needed to do something about that woman — Becca Scott — soon. As much as he was pissed that Raven had told Anaea about his problem, he was grateful she’d been around to snap him out of it. Next time, he could be on his own, and there was no telling if he’d be able to break free or not.

“Raven says it’s getting worse.”

“What exactly is getting worse?” Hunter asked.

“The problem with my magic that makes me dugga. It connects with human mages and lets me communicate with my team to deal with them. And it’s currently on the fritz.”

“Wonderful,” Hunter said, his voice dark. “We can’t afford to have you incapacitated like that. Not with everything going on at Court.”

“Well, I’ve looked, but there isn’t anything in the Handmaiden’s grimoire about it,” Anaea said. “I think we have to go to the Handmaiden’s secret residence and see what we can find.”

“You’ve looked for answers in the grimoire?” Which meant Raven had told Anaea everything. He really was going to have to have a talk with his third-in-command.

“The Handmaiden’s residence is huge,” Hunter said. “Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re never going to find it.” His grip around Anaea’s waist tightened.

“I’ll take Ivy. Maybe her magic will help narrow down the search.” Anaea ran her hands over Hunter’s forearms and tilted her head back against his chest, her pixie cut brushing his jaw. Her words said she was leaving, but her body clearly wanted to stay. Nero remembered those early days. It was as if his body and soul had had a mind of their own and it hadn’t mattered what was logical or smart.

“With Ivy goes Grey,” Hunter said. “It’ll be a four-man team, then.” His embrace around Anaea tightened. “I’ll tell Grey, and we’ll head out in the morning.”

This was getting out of hand. He hadn’t asked for help, and he damned well didn’t want anyone to risk themselves for him. No way would he allow himself to become a liability.

Except he already was.

His phone rang and he pulled it from his pocket. Tobias.

Wonderful. The last time Tobias had called had been to tell Nero his cousin was a traitor, had destabilized Court even more than it already was, and Grey had killed him.

“Yes?”

“Regis has called the Council for a meeting,” Tobias said. He sounded angry and exhausted. It couldn’t be easy right now, being the Court chamberlain.

“When?”

“Now.”

Swell. Nero hung up and stood, the ever-present pain in his head throbbing.

“The prince calls.” And if he wanted to maintain his position in Court as prince’s favorite, he had to keep himself together. If Regis suspected Nero was weakened or disloyal, he was dead. And so was everyone he cared about.

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