Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(11)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(11)
Author: Nalini Singh

He cupped the face of the woman who was his own reason for being, who made immortality seem an iridescent promise rather than an endless road. “Such things are powerful and not to be dismissed lightly . . . but they are not enough to thaw a heart that has been encased in ice for near to seven hundred years.”

9

Jason looked out through a window of the palace that was his residence for the time being, his attention on the small enclosed garden on the mountain side of Mahiya’s palace. It was a spot he’d had to cross the center of the house to see, and one the princess had made no effort to point out to him when she’d shown him to his suite. He could see why.

Unlike the structured courtyard behind him, this hidden area, tucked between the palace and the high defensive wall that protected the fort, appeared to have been set up as a pleasure garden long ago, complete with irrigation channels that kept the wildly blooming plants luxuriant in spite of the desert sun, then forgotten, allowed to run wild.

The exquisite tiles visible on the winding pathways between the garden beds told him it had been designed by someone who expected to spend a great deal of time within its environs . . . or perhaps expected someone else to do so, someone about whom they cared enough to create a concealed paradise.

Eris.

His mind made the connection it had been seeking—the tiles echoed those he’d seen on the steps of Eris’s palace. So perhaps this palace had originally been meant to be Eris’s prison, the garden his private area. Except Eris had attempted to use his time outdoors to escape, quite possibly from this very garden, thus losing even that modicum of freedom.

He made a mental note to follow up his theory with the woman who walked the pathways of the wild garden now. She looked up at that moment, and though he was cloaked in the shadows, a faint tension invaded her spine beneath the ice green of her tunic.

The hemline of the fitted garment reached an inch above the knee, the splits to mid-thigh on both sides allowing freedom of movement but remaining modest, as the tunic was worn over tapered pants of a fine cotton that hugged her legs. Dark blue, the pants echoed the thick blue border on the ends of her elbow-length sleeves and along the bottom of the tunic.

Though styles varied, the pants sometimes loose and sometimes tight; the tunics high-necked or scooped, flaring out in a full skirt or cut neatly to the body; and most often worn with a long, gauzy scarf, it was attire he’d seen many a time in this land, as common on laborers and servants as it was on courtiers. The difference was in the fabrics, the cut, and the depth of embellishment. It wasn’t unusual to see one of the court butterflies in a piece hand beaded with tiny pearls or where the embroidery had been created using fine threads of pure silver and gold.

Mahiya wore lightweight silk, but though the tunic followed the shape of her body, it bore no sparkle, no embroidery. The neck was a shallow scoop that offered a bare glimpse of her shoulder bones, her golden brown skin glowing in the morning sunlight, her hair glinting with hidden strands of red where it hung in a simple, loose braid that reached the center of her back.

Armor, he thought, Mahiya used formal clothing as armor, and he’d found her stripped of it. Taking advantage, he made certain he was waiting for her on the lower level when she reentered the palace.

“Have you broken your fast?” he asked, caught by the way a ray of sunlight lit up the tawny brown of her eyes to even more startling intensity.

“No.” She betrayed no surprise or hesitation at his presence, as if she’d realized his purpose and used the time between his sighting of her and their meeting to put on her emotional armor, if not the clothing that served the same function. “One does not leave a guest to dine alone . . . my lord.”

Pretty words that meant nothing. “My name is Jason,” he said. “I have never been a lord nor do I wish to be one in any sense.”

A blink. “I cannot use your given name.”

Jason considered the cultural mores of the land where he stood, layered them over the short period of his association with Mahiya, her status as a princess, as well as the unspoken rules of Neha’s court, and understood that for her to use his name in public would breach a barrier, leading others to believe the ritual of the blood vow had segued into a far more intimate relationship. “In private, then, I am Jason.”

An incline of her head, followed by a graceful wave as she led him into a sunny room that overlooked the main courtyard. The polished wooden table within, of a size meant to accommodate six, was already set with breakfast—the places situated across from one another. “There are no servants in this palace except for those who come in once a week to clean,” she said, picking up the elegant silver teapot to pour him a cup after they’d both taken their seats. “However, I can have someone assigned to you should you wish it.”

“No.” He took a sip of the sweet tea rich with milk and spices, and returned the cup to the table, intending to pour himself a glass of water.

Mahiya’s eyes flicked up from where she’d been putting food on a plate. “It is not to your liking?” Before he could answer, she rose and disappeared through a small door, to return with another pot only minutes later. “Perhaps you’ll prefer this.”

The pure taste of fine black tea touched his mouth when he lifted the cup to his lips, the leaves no doubt sourced from the plantations in Neha’s territory. “Thank you.” He didn’t tell Mahiya not to serve him, because it told him something else about her that she put down the plate she’d been making to create another one—one much more suited to his tastes, her decision based on nothing but his preference when it came to tea.

A smart woman with many facets . . . who preferred to give an impression otherwise.

Serving herself after passing across his plate, she said, “You wake early.” A penetrating look. “Or you do not sleep. Did you, perhaps, fly all the hours before dawn?”

“I’m not mortal.” Angels weren’t immune to the need for sleep, but the older they became, the less they needed. Jason slept perhaps two nights out of a month, and it was enough to maintain his strength. “However, you need more sleep than you’ve been getting.” Faint bruises marred the skin under her eyes, bruises that couldn’t be accounted for by a single night without sleep.

A genuinely startled look before her lashes veiled her expression. “I wake when you wake, my lord.”

“Jason.”

“Jason.”

It was no victory, he thought, the capitulation as meaningless as any of the other pretty words she said to him. This was not the woman who had talked of garrotes and offered to search a room for a hooked needle, shields of polite courteousness having risen to hide the truth of her in the hours since he’d flown into the vanishing night. “Tell me,” he said, deciding to use not brute force to get past those shields, but rather a subtle enticement to the inquisitive nature she’d earlier betrayed, “about Eris’s guards.”

Putting down her tea, she began to speak, her tone one that said she’d expected the question—which meant she had also worked out why he might need the information. It turned out there were twelve guards in total, a unit whose sole task it was to “protect” Eris by keeping him in his palace. “The unit is composed of highly trained angels, no vampires.”

A winged guard made sense for a prisoner capable of taking flight. “Who do you believe killed Eris?”

Another flash of surprise. This one, she made no attempt to hide, and he understood something else about the princess—she was unused to having her opinions solicited, much less listened to with the respect they no doubt deserved. No one saw more than a person others dismissed as beneath their notice. It was why Jason placed so many of his spies among servants.

However, Mahiya was not a servant, and he didn’t know her well enough to judge whether or not she played a very clever game with him, her “true” face as false as the obvious facade. Only one thing was for certain: Princess Mahiya, with the blade-pins even now hidden in her hair, had just become an even more fascinating creature to his spymaster’s mind.

“It isn’t my place to say” was her smiling response to his question now, the self-deprecation in her tone so natural, most would have accepted it at face value. “I have none of your experience.”

Jason was used to waiting hours, days, weeks if he had to, to unearth a single truth. “I would see the rest of the fort,” he said, permitting her to believe he’d accepted her carefully calculated nonanswer.

“Of course.” Breakfast finished, she quickly cleared the table, then led him outside. “The fort is too big to walk—I can give you an overview as we fly, then—”

“No, show me directly to the area utilized for the formal court.” He would not make himself a target against the painful blue of the sky. Neha had no reason to shoot him out of it, but Neha was also an archangel. The only one of the Cadre Jason trusted was Raphael.

Mahiya hesitated. “If you will give me a moment, I must return to my rooms. My lady will be displeased to see me thus in the main court.”

When Jason nodded, Mahiya knew she was trapped. She’d have to leave the spymaster on his own while she changed, giving him a chance to throw her off once more—but going as she was, was not an option. Neha would deem it an insult, and attracting the archangel’s attention would be a very stupid move on her part at this stage of the plan. No matter what it cost her, she must swallow her pride, bite her tongue, bow her head, whatever it took to survive just awhile longer.

Thanking Jason for his forbearance, she walked upstairs and quickly undid the small row of hooks at her ankles that fastened the tapered cotton of her pants. Many of the younger generation in the city preferred to wear tight jeans below the tunics, but Neha was an archangel of old, preferred an adherence to tradition within the fort.

The buttons that closed the wing slits gave her a frustrating moment when they refused to open, but she managed to get them undone and shrugged the tunic to the floor. That done, she picked up not a sari, but another tunic set. Jason was apt to take to the skies at some point, and much as Mahiya appreciated the grace a sari bestowed a woman, it didn’t make for the most appropriate flight wear.

   
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