Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(14)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(14)
Author: Nalini Singh

“Yes.” Jason felt his own simmering anger spark in response, knew she’d sensed it when she jerked away her head and strode the corridor, her demure demeanor forgotten. Though she could not have meant it to do so, the show of temper soothed his own.

“There she is.” Mahiya indicated a woman walking along one of the open hallways that overlooked the cityscape.

Komal proved to be exactly as described—a sensual invitation with her raven hair and red lips, honey gold skin and dangerous curves. A woman on whom vampirism had bestowed its exotic kiss, and one who was spoiled to the extent that she pouted when Jason didn’t immediately fall at her feet. “We both know the mouse isn’t going to satisfy you,” she purred with venomous sweetness. “I promise to show you pleasures you’ve never tasted.”

Jason stared at the hand she’d raised as if to touch him until she paled, dropped it, before shifting his gaze to lush brown eyes that had no doubt led many a man to hell. “Were you happy to oblige Eris, too?”

11

Pure, unmitigated panic. “Who has started that rumor?” It was a whispered hiss as she looked around for anyone who might overhear. “Neha will execute me if it reaches her ears. God, she’ll probably torture me first, keep me alive for years.”

Jason said nothing, watched her turn to Mahiya, her fangs flashing. “Tell me, or I’ll have you whipped again.”

“If I were you, Komal,” Mahiya said in a tone cool with warning, “I’d forget about making trouble and stay out of sight for the time being.”

Paling even further, the vampire turned and ran off inside, her figure-hugging gown dragging along the gray stone used in this part of the fort. Jason let her go, certain she had neither been, nor had any knowledge of, Eris’s illicit lover. Her shaken response to the accusation and nasty nature aside, Komal wasn’t smart enough to have pulled off such an intrigue. She’d have boasted to someone, been caught long ago.

“Why were you whipped?” he asked the far more complex, intelligent woman by his side.

No hitch in Mahiya’s stride. “Which time?”

His nails dug into his palm. “The last time.”

“I was disrespectful to a high-level courtier.”

“Was he worth respect?”

Unsurprised at the question from this male who didn’t follow any of the rules of accepted behavior and who’d incited a rage in her that had made her forget herself to a dangerous extent, Mahiya said, “No.” Pointless to lie to him now.

“Then the whipping was worth it.”

It was a strange sensation, being totally liberated of the need to conceal her true thoughts. As if she were drunk. “No,” she said, her fury still cold enough to burn, “because after I was beaten and weak, he received what he wanted.” Mahiya had had to prostrate herself at his feet, beg for forgiveness for the slight she’d done him. Only her stubborn refusal to become anything like Neha had kept her from stewing in the bitterness and hate that had sought to bloom in her that day. “I learned to choose my battles.”

Jason’s eyes, so very dark—like the finest chocolate, rich and decadent—lingered on her for a long, endless moment before he gave a small nod. “So long as you continue to fight.”

Anger surged through her veins once more, until it took everything she had to bite out an outwardly civil response. “Yes, my lord.”

A motionless pause that reminded her she was taunting a man so lethal, he met the eyes of an archangel without flinching. Then he said, “I apologize. I do not know anything of the battles you’ve already fought or the choices you’ve had to make to survive.”

No man had ever apologized to her, and hearing it from this man shook her enough that she didn’t say a word when he turned and began to walk the pathways of the fort, leading rather than being led. She knew he heard more than she did, saw more than she did, though she walked beside him.

He was beyond fascinating.

Dangerous and unpredictable and frighteningly intelligent. A threat. And yet she wanted to run her finger over the blade of him even if it made her bleed, wanted to dance too close to the flame, wanted to take a risk that could destroy her.

Her gaze went to the pitch-black of his wings, her fingers aching to explore, as if her silent admission of just how much he drew her had opened a doorway she hadn’t been aware of locking. Except—

Her eyes skated past him, though she knew he was right there.

Snapping back to full alertness, she realized most of the guards didn’t even notice his presence, though they all greeted her with curt nods. Watching him with a focus that caused a dull headache to throb behind her eyes, she saw the outline of him, but an instant later, he stepped into a shadow created by a spray of flowers high up on a wall and was gone.

Unthinking, she reached out, her fingers brushing the edge of his wing, the feathers sleek and warm under her fingertips.

He froze, every muscle tense.

Heat flooded her cheeks, and she dropped her hand as she realized the altogether unacceptable nature of her behavior. “I’m sorry . . . but I couldn’t see you.”

“I’m very good at remaining unseen.” His voice held none of the displeasure she would have expected after witnessing the way he’d warned Komal off from laying a finger on him. “I’ve had hundreds of years of practice.”

She didn’t believe him, but it didn’t take a genius intellect to realize the spymaster would not tell her his secrets. “Again, I apologize.” Her fingers continued to tingle from the fleeting contact. “I had no right.”

“Actually, you did,” he said to her surprise, his tattoo a tactile temptation in the sunlight. “I swore a blood vow to you. Skin and feathers are far closer to the surface than blood.”

“I would never take advantage of the vow in such a fashion.” Fisting her hand in resistance against the compulsion to commit an even worse breach by tracing the wild beauty of his facial markings, she turned her gaze forward and continued to walk. Her skin burned then went icy cold, her heart stuttered . . . and she realized that in spite of her deepening fascination with Raphael’s spymaster, she was afraid.

Jason, with his quiet voice and watchful eyes, was infinitely more dangerous to her than Neha had ever been. He listened when she spoke, had already learned things about her no one else knew. Such a man wouldn’t use his physical strength to overpower her, nor lies to trick her. He’d just know her so well that he’d get her to contribute to her own downfall.

Sweat dampening her palms, she realized too late they were headed for a part of the complex Neha would not want him in under any circumstance. “We can go no further in this direction.”

“Why?”

“This area is for Neha’s private use, off-limits except by her invitation.”

“Very well.” Flaring out his wings with that suspiciously quick agreement, he made a vertical takeoff so fast that she had no hope of catching him.

Compelling . . . and deadly.

It was a truth she could not permit herself to forget, no matter the temptation to touch the blade. Too much was at risk—her entire existence, her very life. Jason was a dream she’d have to save for another life . . . but first, she had to make it out of this one alive.

Losing him above the puffy white clouds that had crept across the sky, she returned her gaze to the pathway of red stone and to the small palace she’d warned Jason not to enter. Neha was secluded at Guardian, would not return till morning. Jason had left Mahiya alone. She’d have no better chance to grab the brass ring.

The trickle of sweat down her spine a chilled bead, she stepped forward.

None of the guards attempted to stop her—Neha often called her in when she wanted something done. But then, Mahiya only ever entered the front rooms. Today, taking advantage of the fact that no guards were permitted within, she continued down the corridor and toward the room at the very center of the palace, a room within which she could sense things that made her hindbrain skitter in warning, jibbering at her to run!

Mahiya wrenched the primal urge under control. This wasn’t her first foray into the forbidden section. The last time had been in the depths of the night, while Neha was actually inside the room at the center. It had taken gut-clenching courage and grim determination, her heart pulsing in her mouth with every jagged breath. What she’d seen that night had been disturbing, but the discovery hadn’t been enough to complete her plan.

Today, the smooth marble walls weren’t encrusted with ice, her breath didn’t fog the air, and her bones didn’t hurt with the pain of extreme cold. Touching her fingers to the marble, she walked quickly and silently down the long final corridor, the door to the room within sight. It had been so hardened with ice the previous time, she hadn’t been able to glean the handle.

Now, the knob shone bright gold. Mahiya went to put her hand on it, hesitated at the last instant. This was far too easy. Forcing patience, she hid herself in a small alcove while she considered the situation from every angle—to discover what Neha was up to, she had to get inside that room, but getting inside that room might well mean her death. Because Neha was an archangel, with abilities both secret and overt.

Her most overt one was the way she could control and manipulate reptilian creatures of every kind. Like the golden vine snake wrapped around the doorknob. Mahiya’s heart punched against her ribs as the creature flicked out its red tongue and she realized what she’d taken for an ornate design was a living being.

A poisonous living being.

Because one of her more covert abilities was the fact that Neha could create poison glands in nonvenomous species. Touching that knob would have meant a bite that left Mahiya paralyzed and helpless for hours.

However, that was unlikely to be the only security feature, because while Neha was an angel of old, she was in no way blind to the benefits of modern technology. Now that Mahiya was thinking properly instead of being driven to act by the knowledge of how quickly her time was running out, she realized that even were the door unlocked, Neha would have set it with a silent alarm that alerted her to any trespass.

   
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