Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(3)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(3)
Author: Nalini Singh

Neha loved Eris too much to hurt him.

It was also why she hated him so violently for his betrayal.

Eris.

Sliding into the shadows of the trees that edged Raphael’s property, a welcome respite from the light, Jason took out his cell phone. In earlier centuries, even with his considerable mental abilities, it had taken him days to communicate with his men and women, weeks to gather a single piece of information. Technology made it so much simpler—unlike some angels of old, and though his chosen weapon remained a sword, Jason did not abhor the modern world.

Now, he saw that he had a number of missed calls that must’ve come in during the ceremony, while his phone had been in silent mode. All were from Samira—she was a servant with clearance to work in Neha’s private quarters and technically his highest-ranking spy in the other archangel’s court, though Jason had his doubts about her continued efficacy. “Samira,” he said when the call was answered. “What has happened?”

“Eris is dead.” A hushed whisper. “Murdered inside his palace.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, but he was found an hour ago. Neha has not left the body. Mahiya is by her side.”

Jason had never spoken to Mahiya, but having done a subtle investigation when Neha first adopted her just over three centuries ago, he knew the princess was of Neha’s bloodline. That relationship was accepted knowledge, but the facts behind it had long been buried. Many in Neha’s own court chose not to remember, not to see the truth—that Mahiya had been born of Nivriti, sister to Neha and dead as long as her child had been alive.

No terrible secret that . . . except if you knew the name of Mahiya’s father.

Eris.

2

Though Mahiya was the fruit of Eris and Nivriti’s forbidden relationship, she was, to all outward appearances, treated as a beloved princess by her aunt, the title a courtesy to elucidate her status as kin to Neha. “Is there anything else?”

Samira’s breathing went very quiet for a minute, and Jason waited without interruptions or demands, knowing she had to be concerned about being overheard. “Neha is half insane,” she said at last. “I’m worried she’ll release her power.”

Knowing as he did the depth of the archangel’s emotions where her husband was concerned—she’d neither been able to forgive him his infidelity, nor set him free after centuries of confinement—Jason shared Samira’s concern. And Neha was a being of immense power. If she gave voice to her agony, she could lay waste to cities, and it was near certain she would aim her rage toward those she held responsible for another terrible pain—the execution of her daughter, Anoushka.

Raphael had delivered the final blow that reduced Neha’s daughter to dust.

“Tell me the instant she makes a move.”

Hanging up, he looked out over the grounds to see the bridal party and guests walking inside for the no doubt exquisite breakfast prepared by the proud household staff, under the butler Montgomery’s dignified guidance. Raphael’s wings glittered in the sunlight, the gold filaments striking against the white. Sire.

Raphael didn’t pause, his expression giving nothing away. What is it, Jason?

Eris is dead. Murdered. He knew Raphael had seen Eris court Neha, win her, and Raphael understood the twisted emotions that had tied the two together.

The archangel’s reply was swift. Meet me in the study.

Two minutes later, when Jason slipped into the study through the French doors that opened out onto the lawn, he did so with a stealth that meant no one would’ve seen him, though the sun rose higher on the horizon with every breath. That was as it should be—it was his job to be unseen, unheard, a shadow among shadows. After six centuries, his status as Raphael’s spymaster was no secret when it came to the oldest immortals, though that knowledge gained them nothing and had even less impact on Jason’s activities. While people focused on him, his operatives quietly found places in courts and towers across the world.

Raphael entered the room at that moment, closing the door behind him. “Neha was already on the edge of madness after Anoushka’s execution.” The archangel’s tone was unforgiving in its honesty. “This may well push her over.”

Jason had seen other archangels lose fatal control, had walked through devastated cities full of rotting corpses, watched an entire country fall into a dark age in which all hope was extinguished, children’s eyes dull with despair. Even if Neha chose a target outside Raphael’s territory, the world could not suffer such devastation so soon after the destruction of Beijing without breaking—and regardless, the ensuing archangelic war would engulf them all.

His phone purred discreetly at that instant. Answering it, he heard Samira say, “She’s left the body—her eyes are of madness.”

“Get her to the room where she has her communications suite.”

“Jason, she won’t see reason.”

“You must find a way.” Every one of his operatives was of cutting intelligence, able to think on his or her feet. “Then get out of the fort and Neha’s territory.”

Samira took a deep breath. “I might be able to do it if I stretch the truth and say the Cadre wishes to speak to her.”

“Do not linger, Samira.” In this mood, Neha would kill her.

“I’ll leave as soon as the words are spoken.”

Hanging up, he looked at Raphael. “If we make the call now, we have a chance of catching her before she can no longer see or hear through the rage.”

“I can divert her,” Raphael responded, “but it could involve your presence in her territory.”

“I’ll go.” While the risk to Samira was now too high, Jason was far stronger, knew he garnered a certain respect from Neha.

Raphael nodded and waited for Jason to retreat out of view before he input the call on the large screen in one corner of the study, for Raphael, too, understood the value of technology. The answer took so long in coming, Jason thought Samira must’ve failed in her task. But the screen cleared at long last to show Neha as he’d never before seen her.

The Archangel of India was always elegant, always graceful.

Now, her black hair hung matted and snarled around her face, as if she’d been pulling at it; streaks of blood slashed across her skin and soaked into the marigold yellow of her silk sari. “Raphael,” she said, her voice so calm it was lethal. “You circle like a vulture even as Eris’s lifeblood stains my hands.”

Raphael’s response was gentle. “I have never been that, Neha.”

A faint smile that was of the reptile that gave Neha her name as the Queen of Snakes. “No, perhaps not. So, do you offer your commiseration?” An almost bored statement, her lashes lowered to shield the wild rage that boiled within.

“I offer my help.”

Neha raised a single regal eyebrow. “Unless you have been keeping secrets, I think bringing Eris back to life is beyond your capability. Lijuan herself could not achieve that.”

Jason wondered if Neha had considered consigning her once-husband to the horror of being one of Lijuan’s “reborn,” a shambling, mindless monster fed of human flesh, and couldn’t immediately discount the idea. That only added to the urgency of the situation, because if Neha and Lijuan joined forces, the world would drown in blood and death and screaming terror.

“No,” Raphael said in response to Neha’s taunt. “Eris was murdered inside your fort, thus, you cannot trust anyone within. I have someone with the skill to unearth the murderer for you.”

The pause was longer this time, the insanity in Neha’s eyes replaced in slow degrees by cold, hard reason. “That black shadow of yours? The rescued pup?”

Jason felt no insult, though the latter description was inaccurate. No one had rescued him.

Raphael’s response, too, was unruffled, the flawless blue of his eyes calm as a glacial lake. “Jason’s skill is beyond dispute.”

“He is also your spymaster.” Raising a bloody hand, she stared at it, her voice altering without warning to a shaken whisper. “Eris bled so much—I did not know he had that much in him.”

“I sorrow for you, Neha. He was your husband and your consort.” It was a solemn statement, one archangel to another.

“Yes.” The madness returned, swirling and clawing. “He was also father to the child you helped murder,” she hissed, her eyes changing in a way that was too quick for Jason to truly see before they returned to normal, but that put him in mind of her serpents once more.

Raphael didn’t back down under the venomous attack, didn’t remind Neha that Anoushka had signed her death warrant when she harmed a child in the quest for power. “You wish to do violence, that much is clear,” he said, “but rather than lashing out indiscriminately, would it not be more satisfying to torture the one responsible?”

Neha turned away from the camera to pick up what appeared to be a juvenile python, settle it around her neck. Stroking the creature like it was a cat, she seated herself in a chair of a pale wood carved with infinite patience, polished and varnished until it gleamed like a jewel. “You think me mad,” she said as the snake raised its head, tasted the air with its tongue.

“I think you are grieving. And I think this was a cowardly act.”

A lazy blink, fingers pausing on the python’s sleek body. “Do you?”

“Eris was not powerful. Beautiful in a way men are rarely beautiful but with little personal strength. This was done to hurt and spite you.”

“My poor Eris.” Another lingering caress. “You are right. I cannot trust anyone within the fort until I know the identity of the assassin . . . but if your spymaster is to enter it, he must bind himself to me.”

“That,” Raphael said with a gentleness that took the sting out of the refusal, “I cannot allow, not even for you. He is one of my Seven.”

“Would you protect him at the cost of thousands of lives?” Ice-cold and rational and manipulative, she was the Archangel of India in that moment.

   
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