"It's her roommates," Asterion said. "Jude mentioned they'd gone missing."
Guilt struck me, sudden and woozy, and I leaned heavily back against the chair. I'd forgotten about Beth's roommates, forgotten they'd gone missing in the wake of Beth's death. Part of me had assumed they'd reappeared again or had moved on to a different apartment or neighborhood.
"Have they been found?" I asked, voice thin.
"Not for certain. However, I returned to my post at the Seven Veils this week to discover Birsha had…new women available," Asterion said carefully, reaching up to scuff one of his broad golden horns in obvious discomfort. "Human girls. Absolutely not there of their own volition."
I sucked in a rough breath. The table was laid out with a king's feast of breakfast foods, and not a bite of it looked appetizing at the moment.
"Jude provided me with enough details to assume I'd come across the missing roommates," Asterion said.
Nireas took his own seat on my other side, and both he and Hunter offered their hands. I latched on gratefully.
"What about Margaret? She wasn't living alone either."
"We have someone keeping an eye on her own roommates. It's difficult to…protect women of their profession, but we're doing what we can," Asterion said. "Margaret was killed on the street. Whoever is acting for Birsha must not have been able to snatch the girls at the same time."
"This is the best evidence we have yet of Birsha's responsibility in Beth and Margaret's deaths," Hunter said.
"Was there any doubt?" I asked, frowning.
"Little," Asterion said, shrugging. "But it would hardly serve us to focus an attack on Birsha and his business if the culprit weren't connected. He's no easy foe to challenge."
"And how do we challenge him?" I asked.
Asterion's brow furrowed, and he glanced between Hunter and me. "Those discussions are still in progress. And while I don't doubt your determination to see Birsha and his accomplice brought to justice, the battle wouldn't be a safe place for a human woman."
I blinked at him, my answer ready on my lips, when I stopped myself. Hunter shifted in my direction, and I turned to him, caught his smile and the squeeze of his fingers around mine. I didn't have to keep the secret. Not if I didn't want to.
"I'm not human," I said, and the truth came awkwardly to my tongue, so rare and so long held back. I turned back to Asterion. "Not entirely. And anyway, human women might not be strong enough to fight monsters face to face, but I'm sure girls like Alexa and Evie and me would like to be of some use. We're as much a part of your world now as you are."
I hadn't considered it before, but it was true. I'd spent eight years thinking I existed in some in-between place, not allowed to belong to the world of monsters, incapable of continuing to be entirely human. The knowledge of monsters, the nights and days spent in their company, made us every bit as much a member of their community, whether they wanted to believe it or not.
"She has a warrior's heart," Asterion said to Hunter.
My orc grunted, drawing my eye. His gaze was warm, lips curved, and his thumb stroked gently over the back of my hand. "Actually, she has two warriors' hearts in her possession."
I flushed warm, melting into the chair as Hunter lifted my hand to his lips, kissing my skin and drawing a shiver through me as his tongue flicked out to taste.
"Consider it three," Nireas murmured, squeezing my hand. "But, Hazel, it doesn't make me less reluctant to have you involved."
"He's right," Hunter said. "Whatever role you take, your safety will be my first priority."
I wanted to argue but suspected there would be little chance of success, especially at the moment. I turned back to Asterion instead. "Can anything be done for Beth's roommates?"
Asterion grimaced, baring his blunt teeth briefly. "Not enough thus far, but I'm in talks with a few acquaintances to try and come up with a plan."
"We still need Asterion to remain under Birsha's nose without arousing suspicion," Hunter said.
Asterion let out a huffing grunt, nostrils flaring. "He's saying that as much as I'd wish to, I can't carry all of Birsha's wares out the front door without losing my head in the process. But I've been doing my best to bring in more sympathetic clients who might be able to help."
He didn't look proud. It wasn't enough. But it was something for those men and women and monsters Birsha had his grip on. I offered Asterion a gentle smile and a dip of my head.
"Some rescues take more time. It doesn't make you less of a hero," I said.
Asterion's cheeks flushed, and he turned his eye toward the front windows, another flustered huff puffing from his nose. "Thank you, Miss Nix," he grumbled.