Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(15)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(15)
Author: Nalini Singh

Once inside, would an intruder find the room unoccupied . . . or herself surrounded by hundreds of snakes irritated to hissing anger at being disturbed?

A hint of noise, a whisper.

Freezing, she hoped whoever it was—a maid?—had only entered to take care of something in the front rooms.

“So,” said a tempered, familiar voice from the left of the alcove, “you seek to unearth Neha’s secrets.”

A bolt of terror hitting her bloodstream, she shifted into the light to face Jason. “I came to get something I’d forgotten,” she said, then considered her empty hands. “I didn’t find it.”

Near-black eyes watched her without blinking. “You’re very good at lying, but I’m even better at detecting it.” Turning his attention to the closed door guarded by the vine snake, he looked at it for several careful seconds before shifting on his heel and saying, “We need to talk in privacy.”

It wasn’t an invitation.

Mahiya would’ve liked nothing better than to refuse the order, but if he mentioned this to Neha, she’d be dead and nothing else would matter. Frustration, fear, and anger boiling a caustic brew in her veins, she followed him out into the light, blinking against the brightness . . . to find that he was no longer beside her.

“It wouldn’t do for Neha to learn that I’d been in there,” he said several minutes later, having rejoined her once she reached a more public area.

“How did you get in?” Even as she spoke, she remembered all those guards simply not seeing him.

His only answer was to glance at her wings, ask, “Can you do another vertical takeoff?”

“Yes.” She was slow, not weak. “Where are we going?”

“Follow me.” Rising into the sky, he held his position until she joined him, then swept out across the city, farther, until they were flying over villages where excited children ran and waved at them, and stacks of blue pottery sat ready to be decorated, while sleepy cattle dozed in a rare green pasture fed by a stream nearly concealed by tall grasses.

I will miss this.

It was a thought that made her heart ache with sorrow. This land of desert and color and hidden oases was all she’d ever known. She couldn’t imagine living in a place without rolling sand dunes, the sight of camels with their swaying walk as familiar as those of the regal elephants. Animals were treated with affection and care under rules Neha had set in place long ago, and many roamed over land set aside for them, as with the herd of camels below, their necks bent as they grazed.

A lone herder, her long skirt and hip-length tunic a sun bright yellow, looked up, raising her hand in a wave. Mahiya waved back, struck once more by Neha’s many—sometimes violently opposed—aspects. She was a queen, could be cruel, but she was also beloved by her people for her generosity and fairness, the angels from her court welcome wherever they went.

Should Mahiya land in the village below, she would be received with warmth, given tea hot from the pot and savories fresh from the oven. There was fear in the populace, of course, but it wasn’t crippling, simply a quiet acknowledgement that the immortals were stronger and more dangerous, that it was better to live peacefully with them, to serve when called than to rebel.

However, it wasn’t to one of those villages that Jason took her, but to a small, deserted field. Landing under the branches of a tree whose roots went deep enough that it thrived even when there were no rains, its light green leaves lacey and delicate, he folded back his wings, watched her come down. She felt graceless in comparison to his shadow silent descent, her wings rustling, her feet too heavy.

“Now,” Jason said when she’d settled, “we will talk.”

The desolate vista in front of her, the land lying fallow, was nonetheless home, and it gave her courage. “What would you have me say?”

Jason looked into Mahiya’s eyes and saw a steely determination. She wasn’t a woman who would easily break . . . and he was not a man who would ever shatter a woman’s spirit. However, there were other ways of getting what he wanted—and he didn’t have time to play games. “We both know I hold the cards here.”

“You swore a blood vow to me,” she pointed out, though her skin had paled under the soft shade created by the fine leaves of the tree under which they stood. “You cannot cause me harm.”

“Remember the words we spoke,” he said, crushing his primal response to her refusal to surrender. “I am charged only with unearthing Eris’s murderer and protecting your family’s interests as I do so. And it appears you have traitorous intent.”

She clenched her jaw. “What will you tell her?”

“It depends on whether or not we can come to an accommodation.” So long as he completed his task and discovered the identity of the killer, he was not bound to report everything he found to Neha.

A hardened jaw, flinty eyes. “And what is your price, my lord?”

The last two words may as well have been an insult. “Tell me about that room,” he said, his gaze dropping to lips thin with anger, “about what goes on within.”

“I don’t know,” she grit out. “I’ve never been able to get inside.”

True enough, he thought, watching a face that was incredibly expressive if you took the time to learn the subtle movements that betrayed her every thought. And Jason had taken the time. “But you’ve seen something.”

Her wings rustling restlessly, she blew out a deep, shuddering breath. “Ice. It coated the walls, covered the door. My breath frosted, and I could feel my blood beginning to freeze.” She shivered. “My veins . . . they stood out against my skin, and when I pressed down, they felt hard.”

Angels were built for flight, and as such, did not feel the cold as mortals did. And what Mahiya was describing was a cold so terrible, it was an impossibility in this particular region. Yet, as far as he knew, Neha’s archangelic abilities did not include the capacity to manipulate the elements.

“Was Neha alone in the room?”

The tiniest hesitation.

12

“I’ve never seen her enter with anyone.”

Very cleverly put, but Jason had been playing this game centuries longer than Mahiya. “Have you heard her speaking to anyone while she’s within?”

“If I tell you everything,” she said in a tone so resolute, it was granite, “it won’t matter if you betray me to Neha. The end result will be the same.”

Jason considered why a princess might need to hoard dangerous knowledge. “You need a bargaining chip,” he guessed. “For what?”

“Why are you doing this?” A hunted look in her eyes, the pupils vivid black against cat-bright irises. “Stripping me bare?”

That look, it hit the part of him he preferred to pretend didn’t exist, but he didn’t back off, didn’t soften. He needed to know who Mahiya had heard in that room with Neha, because if what he suspected was true, the world might yet drown in horror such as no one could imagine.

The princess twisted away to give him her back, her wings sweeping in graceful arches to the dusty earth, in direct contrast to the rigid stiffness of her spine. “I’m going to die soon if I don’t find a way out.” The words were as stark as the land that surrounded them. “Neha will never voluntarily set me free to live my own life, and she no longer has any reason to keep me alive—I was only ever useful as a means to torment Eris.”

“And as a surrogate to punish,” Jason said, all of the pieces he’d glimpsed coming together to form an ugly, twisted whole. “Where do you plan to go?”

She turned on her heel, showed him two empty palms. “Where can I go?” Rippling anger in every word. “I want only a life away from this prison of hate, be it in a hovel, but only another archangel can stand against Neha, so it must be one of the Cadre.”

“Lijuan is the closest.”

Blind terror racking her frame, so vicious and deep that he made the rarest of moves and reached out to touch her, squeezing her upper arm. “Mahiya.”

“Not Lijuan.” Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d been screaming.

“You’ve attempted it before,” he guessed, the warmth of her skin lingering on his palm though the contact had been fleeting. “What happened?” There were a thousand horrors in Lijuan’s court, a thousand nightmares given flesh and blood form.

Mahiya leaned back against the tree, her profile limned by the light that caught hints of sunset in her hair. “It’s difficult to have a conversation with a man who sees everything.”

“You mean it’s difficult to manipulate me into seeing what you want me to see.” The truth was, his strength came not from how well he could read her, but from his acceptance of how much he might miss. Even when he’d known someone for centuries, he was always conscious he’d caught but a glimpse of the complex tapestry that was their inner life.

The woman in front of him had an intricate pattern to her heart and emotions he might never fathom, didn’t have the ability to fathom. All he could do was watch for cues others took for granted, put those cues together to form a picture of her emotions. He knew that wasn’t how the rest of the world did it, knew his inability to connect to those around him on that level was a lack in him.

It troubled him enough that he’d spoken to Jessamy about it a century ago. The gentle teacher of angelic young had taken time to consider his question. “I think,” she’d said at long last, “you have the capacity to feel with the same depth as any other immortal. Perhaps more.

“You have a heart so powerful, it scares me at times. And the way you keep your emotions under lock and key . . .” An intent look. “The storm will break one day, of that I’m certain. You’ve never had reason to take the risk yet.” She’d given him a rueful smile. “I know something about avoiding pain, so trust me when I say that.”

Jason had the utmost respect for Jessamy, knew her words were no lie. Born with a malformed wing that meant solo flight was out of her grasp, she’d suffered anguish such as Jason couldn’t imagine. He would never discount it, never consider it less important than the forces that had shaped him, but he knew the way they had grown and developed was fundamentally different.

   
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