Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(12)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(12)
Author: Nalini Singh

Of a soft yellow fabric heavily embroidered with white flowers set with tiny mirrors in their centers, the tunic was formal without breaching the mourning etiquette in force since Anoushka’s death. The fine cotton pants that hugged her legs were a contrasting white, as was the long scarf she folded lengthwise and placed over her left shoulder, attaching it to the tunic with a brooch from the jewels available for her to use but that belonged to the fort Treasury.

Her hair was easy enough—she pulled it back into a neat knot at the nape of her neck, anchoring it with the high-quality blade-pins she’d managed to buy from a traveling tinker without anyone being the wiser, bartering a richly embellished sari in exchange. The tinker believed he’d gotten the better of their bargain, but the pins had given Mahiya a priceless sense of safety in the darkness, a constant reminder that she wasn’t a broken, crushed creature, but a woman willing to fight for her right to live, to exist.

Her face, she left untouched. Her eyes already attracted too much attention—she wanted no more.

“Such pretty eyes you have.”

A half-grown child, Mahiya didn’t know why the words made her sick to her stomach. “Thank you.”

A slow smile from the archangel who she’d been told was her aunt. “They are your grandfather’s eyes. The line, it seems, breeds true.”

Shrugging off the chill of the memory, she slid her feet into flat slippers, her toes fitting perfectly into the crystal-studded leather, the strap around her ankle similarly bejeweled. No one could ever say Neha didn’t give the child she’d “adopted” every luxury.

Less than seven minutes after she’d come upstairs, she ran back down—to find Jason standing in front of the courtyard pavilion, his hands behind his back and his attention on the palace that had been Eris’s prison. Relief had her releasing the breath she hadn’t been aware of holding.

He didn’t fit here, she thought, caught by the starkly masculine beauty of him as she walked to the pavilion. He was too untamed a thing for the polished elegance and polite rules of Neha’s kingdom. From the wildness of the tattoo that covered the left side of his face, to the implacable black of his wings and the clean lines of his clothing—simple black pants, a shirt in the same dark shade, black boots, no jewelry—everything about Jason screamed that he was a man, an angel, who made his own way, forged his own path.

He might offer Neha his respect, but he would never worship her as a demigoddess, Mahiya thought, her eyes going to the hair in its neat queue at the nape of his neck . . . which was when she noticed he wore a sword in a black sheath along the centerline of his spine, the straps merging into the black of his shirt. “Neha does not allow weapons in her formal court but for the guard.”

Jason’s eyes locked with her own, and though she knew it for an illusion, it felt as if he was stripping her down to the soul, seeing things she’d never shared with another living being. “Neha,” he said, “understands how I work.”

Mahiya doubted very much if anyone understood the spymaster in truth, but she gave a small nod, taking the opportunity to end the disturbing eye contact. “Shall we go?”

Jason said nothing as they left the courtyard, his silence so profound she knew it must be a part of him, not something created to unsettle her. Strangely enough, she didn’t find it disquieting in the least—Jason’s silence was an honest thing, unlike the lies that came out of so many other mouths. “We’ll find my lady in the public audience chamber.”

Neha was always available on this day to those of her land who would speak directly to her, a paradoxically fair queen whether the constituent was an aristocrat or a farmer. “It’s early enough that we may be able to see her unhindered,” she added as they walked through an intricately painted gate large enough for several elephants to pass through side by side.

The fort was alive and awake, and Mahiya nodded hello to any number of people. The women were all dressed in soft shades rather than the intense reds, yellows, and blues normally favored in this region, but styles varied dramatically. A number wore day gowns, several vampires neat suits that said they had business outside the fort, while still others wore plain work saris. Then there were those dressed in the uniform of the guard, complete with weapons—Neha did not discriminate when it came to skill and ability.

Everyone looked to Jason for an introduction, but Mahiya ignored the unspoken requests and continued on her way, well aware he wasn’t a man who would play the polite games of court. She was glad to get out of the thoroughfare when they reached the public audience hall, which was in actuality a large stone pavilion open on three sides. Six rows of seven columns marched across the floor, holding up the curved roof and, above it, a large terrace.

Neha usually addressed her supplicants from the high throne already set in place, but it stood empty at present. Instead of petitioning the guard standing in front of the door Mahiya knew opened into a staircase that led up to the terrace, she stepped out and flew upward, her wings aching under the strain of the vertical takeoff. Jason, of course, had no such trouble and landed on the terrace before her.

Her instinct proved right—Neha stood at the edge where the original lattice wall had been removed to provide an uninterrupted view. Her eyes were on the mountains, the hills a golden brown in the early morning light, the greenery sparse.

“His funeral pyre blazes tomorrow,” she said as Mahiya reached her. “You will not wear white. No one will wear white.”

It was no loss to Mahiya not to wear the color of mourning—Eris had been less a father to her than a tomcat was to his kittens. As for Neha’s own motivations, the archangel alone knew the truth, but Mahiya had seen her beside Eris’s butchered body, heard her distraught keening. No matter what she tried to portray in her pride, the same pride that meant Eris spent three centuries as a prisoner, Neha mourned.

“My lady,” she said, a sympathy within her that she didn’t attempt to crush out of existence. Her continued ability to feel for the hurt suffered by another being—especially when that being was the archangel who saw in her only an endless vengeance—was part of who she was, a tenderness of heart she’d nurtured with fierce devotion even when it would’ve been easier to have acquired a carapace of hardness nothing could penetrate.

Neha turned to face Jason, dismissing Mahiya as another person might an insect. “What have you discovered, Spymaster?”

10

“Eris’s palace might have been well guarded,” Jason said, “but it wasn’t impregnable.”

Neha’s lips curved in a humorless smile. “Only those without care for their lives would’ve broken the rules. Do you tell me there was more than one?”

“I can tell you nothing yet.” Jason held Neha’s gaze in a way Mahiya had seen no one in the court dare, not even the archangel’s most trusted advisors.

Her stomach tensed at the risk he was taking. Though he was a stranger with no call on her loyalty, Mahiya found she did not want Jason bloodied. It would be a desecration of a beautiful, wild creature who should never be caged or broken.

However, Neha laughed, an appreciative glint in her eye. “All seven of you, so arrogant.”

Sensing that she was missing something important, but unable to work out what, Mahiya fell into step behind Neha and Jason as they walked. Neha’s almost wholly ice white wings were a stark contrast to Jason’s black, as was the shimmering coral of the archangel’s simple but exquisitely cut gown.

“How is Dmitri?” Neha now asked, the edge in her voice sharp as a scalpel.

Jason’s reply was unexpected. “Have you still not forgiven him for returning to Raphael?”

Neha laughed again, the gleaming blade transmuted into the first real amusement Mahiya had heard from her since Anoushka’s execution. “I thought the two feral pups deserved one another, and I was right, was I not?” Not waiting for an answer, she added, “He should, however, have invited me to his wedding,” the words holding a dangerous politeness.

“Yes, he should have, but a vampire from your court did attempt to kill him only days past.”

Neha raised her head, her smile as cold as the blood of the cobra curled up in a basket in one corner of the terrace. “Does he believe I would hide behind one such as Kallistos?”

“The fact is,” Jason said, “Dmitri has always liked you better than most of the rest of the Cadre—but, and regardless of the brief truce born of my presence here, you and Raphael are not the best of friends at present.”

“Playing politics, Jason?”

“I’m very good at it.”

A small silence. “Of course you are.” The anger was replaced by cool approval. “A spymaster who could not understand the nuances would be useless.”

Jason didn’t say anything in response to that self-evident truth. What he did say was, “When Dmitri discovered why I came to your territory, he asked me to convey his sympathy. He says he will always remember Eris as a swordsman who was a welcome sparring opponent.”

Mahiya had seen Eris dance with a blade within the confines of his palace, the grace of it dazzling. Once, she had even seen Neha and Eris together in the courtyard, their swords and bodies moving with a harmony that—for a single piercing moment—made it painfully clear how the two could’ve fallen in love.

“I had forgotten,” Neha murmured, “that Dmitri and Eris had that in common. Two such different men connected by the blade.”

“He also charged me to ask if you would welcome him and his bride once you are receiving guests again.”

“If he spoke so prettily, I would be most astonished,” Neha said, but Mahiya could tell she was pleased by the request, for the leader of the Seven was meant to be a cynical, hard-hearted bastard who trusted no one. Yet he respected Neha’s honor enough to bring into her territory the woman he’d made his wife.

“Tell him,” the archangel said, “that I will not be displeased if he and his wife should pay their respects. My quarrel is with Raphael, not Dmitri.”

   
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