Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(13)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(13)
Author: Nalini Singh

Jason nodded. “I will pass on the message. Do I keep you from your people?”

“No.” Neha shook her head and stepped a wing-length away. “I have postponed the public audience. You will escort me to Guardian where I plan to remain overnight with Eris.”

Wings spread, she executed a flawless vertical takeoff, Jason rising at her side. Mahiya was slower, found herself lagging behind, but she made no effort to catch up, her stomach lurching at the thought of being at Guardian. Instead, she let her eyes linger on the gentle bustle of the city below. It had had another name once, but after so many centuries in the shadow of Archangel Fort, it had become Archangel City.

Not surprisingly, the city reflected Neha’s tastes. Though—aside from the residences of powerful vampires or angels who lived outside the fort—the buildings were mostly small and single leveled; they were graceful structures of stone that had withstood the march of time. Like any city, Archangel had narrow alleys as well as wider thoroughfares, but nothing was broken or ugly, dirty or derelict, the water in the lake running clear and so fresh it was drinkable.

On Mahiya’s other side, hugging a natural ridgeline, sprawled the fort, and it too bore the stamp of its mistress. Guardian Fort was modest in comparison. It was also connected to the main fort by subterranean passages men had apparently died to keep secret—Mahiya only knew about them because Eris had let something slip on one of the rare occasions when he’d drowned his rage in a bottle.

“Instead of attempting flight, I should have waited for my opportunity and used the tunnels!”

“Tunnels?”

“To Guardian, you stupid girl!”

Eris had refused to say anything further on the topic, but she’d managed to get Vanhi to confirm the existence of the tunnels. However, the vampire, with her maternal ways, had known of only one entrance—inside the Palace of Jewels, a location that might as well be on the moon.

In front of Mahiya, Neha and Jason circled the higher fort, and she was struck by the span of Jason’s wings, by the clean efficiency of his flight technique, not a motion wasted. He wasn’t a man she ever wanted after her in the sky—escape would be impossible.

Putting on a burst of speed, she came in below them to land in Neha’s private courtyard within the fort that made a chill bead of sweat roll down her spine even now. However, that wasn’t the reason for her descent: It would not do for her to rise higher than the archangel—that lesson she’d learned on the fateful day a hundred years after her birth, when she’d officially crossed the line into adulthood and lost the protection afforded by Neha’s unwillingness to harm the young.

The lesson had been a brutal one, the Master of the Guard instructed to strip her back of skin. Mahiya had long understood she lived on Neha’s sufferance, having learned the truth from a nanny who thought she should know her place in the scheme of things, the gift of knowledge a rough kindness.

“Never forget that nothing you do will ever please her. To her, you are not a child to be protected, but a constant reminder of a betrayal that humiliated an archangel. Focus on survival.”

As she’d hung from the whipping post, blood trickling down her back, Mahiya had understood something else. That Neha wanted to break her until she was a living warning on the price of disloyalty. Enough people knew the unspoken secret of Mahiya’s heritage that the warning would be understood.

I will survive and I will survive whole.

The vow was one she’d made even as the whip fell again and again. And it was one she had kept, refusing to let Neha twist her into an ugly mirror of Neha’s own hatred. Allowing the archangel to believe she’d succeeded in cowing Mahiya was a strategic move on the chessboard that cost her nothing but pride . . . and pride was a useless tool in the fight for her very existence.

Jason landed after Neha, but that was to be expected—he was clearly acting as her guard in this moment. He ignored Mahiya’s presence, sparing her not so much as a glance.

Something foul bubbled in her stomach, and she knew herself for the most pathetic kind of fool. What had she expected? That he’d continue to treat her with that inexplicable, alluring respect after it became clear exactly how little she mattered to Neha?

“Jason.” Neha inclined her head in regal acknowledgment before entering the palace she used while at Guardian, ready to begin her vigil by Eris’s lifeless body.

Swallowing the anger within her that could ruin everything, Mahiya said, “Do you wish to return to Archangel Fort?”

A nod, and he rose again, in a burst of blinding speed.

Her heart leaped into her throat. He was faster than Neha. Her own rise felt childish and painful by comparison, but she got airborne and made her way to the fort through the crystalline blue skies while Jason went so high he wasn’t even a dot in the distance, reappearing at the last minute to arrow down to a clean landing in front of her—their—palace. The area appeared deserted, the guards having decamped after removing Eris’s body.

Jason folded back his wings, waited for her to do the same. Then he turned to her. “Do you not,” he said in a tone calm and measured, “have enough respect for yourself to not allow Neha to treat you like something scraped off the bottom of her shoe?”

The shock of the unexpected blow was so absolute, it felt as if he’d punched a fist into her rib cage, crumpling her bones inward where they ripped and tore and made her bleed.

* * *

Jason realized he’d made a mistake the instant after he spoke, as Mahiya’s face paled to a sickening shade, her breath jagged. It had been a long time since he’d spoken without thought, and he knew he’d allowed his anger at Mahiya’s acceptance of the treatment meted out to her by Neha to color his thinking.

Shifting a fraction closer, he spread his wings as if stretching them. “We are watched.” He made his tone a whip. “Do not break.”

She blinked at the harsh order, and then it was as if a rod of steel had been thrust through her spine, her tawny eyes wild with fury. “A test, spymaster? If so, I failed.”

So at last, I see you again, Mahiya. “I could have spoken with more care, but that would not change the heart of my question.”

Her fury now tightly controlled, she walked not into the privacy of the palace, but through the delineated pathways of the courtyard garden, the area bright with lush blooms that mocked the desert climate, the water running down the sides of the pavilion offering a cooling wash of air. “Am I meant to thank you for calling me a spineless coward?”

“No,” he said, his own anger far more tempered but no less dangerous. “But you must know that weakness, real or feigned, only incites predators.” And the archangels were the alpha predators on the planet. “Neha appreciates those who stand up to her—you have the strength to do so.” She was no more spineless than he was stupid. “You have no reason to play dead.”

A wash of dark red across her cheekbones, her hands fisting. “Don’t think to know me or my life on the basis of a day’s enforced intimacy, my lord.” Turning away from the garden with those cold words, she led him through a doorway into the cool rooms within the fort, heading downward until he thought they must be on the level that housed the Palace of Jewels.

They exchanged no further words until she halted by a set of doors decorated with the familiar motif of slender vases, the carvings inset with agate and what looked to be green tourmaline. The doors stood ajar, but the angle meant he and Mahiya were yet concealed from the view of the people within. He took advantage of that to study the room and its inhabitants.

Spacious and relatively free of furniture, the room opened out onto a wide balcony, sunlight slanting in through there as well as through the tiny squares of the lattice window to the right. The illumination was bright but not hard, gilding the angels and vampires who stood talking and laughing in pairs or small groupings, all dressed in rich fabrics that sparkled and glittered, diamonds like drops of ice in their hair and their ears.

“Courtiers,” Mahiya said, her tone frigid. “A private brunch where they can display their finery without offence to Neha. I can make the introductions.”

Refusing the offer with a shake of his head, he walked a few feet to the right—to a door that, as he’d hoped, led directly to a balcony that paralleled the room of courtiers. Even better for his purpose, it was small, unconnected to the wider balcony he’d observed at the end of the room. Walking out, he leaned against the sun-warmed stone beside the lattice window and settled in to listen, darkly conscious of Mahiya’s silent presence by his side.

As she’d been silent in Neha’s presence.

His renewed anger at her behavior was visceral, a raw, bubbling thing. After near to seven hundred years of living with memories that had never faded, he knew the cause of his turbulent response, knew his fury was fed by the memory of another woman who hadn’t fought the violence meted out to her.

“He cannot help it, Jason. A terrible darkness has taken hold of his heart . . . but we can bring him back. We just have to love him.”

Neha’s treatment of Mahiya was nothing so obvious as a physical blow, but it was as effective a weapon in erasing her personality.

“. . . rumors he had a lover.”

Clamping down on his anger, Jason focused on the voices.

“Ridiculous. Who would chance execution for something as tawdry as sex?”

“Komal might. You know how angry she has been since Neha banished that vampire she intended to bed.”

“Komal is a silly girl, but she isn’t suicidal.”

Jason listened for almost an hour, but heard nothing else as explosive as that short conversation. “Who is Komal?” he asked Mahiya once they were well away from the room.

“A vampire who has been part of the inner court for half a century. Her beauty is considerable, and she’s adept at using it to manipulate men. I think she doesn’t quite understand that Neha is not as susceptible.” A glance that wasn’t as circumspect as he’d come to expect from her, the frost yet present in the tawny brown depths. “I’ll take you to her if you wish.”

   
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