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

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

Dmitri glanced at Honor, his lips shaping into a faint smile. My wife is a hunter and far more likely to join me in riding to your rescue should you need it. Pausing, he added a personal message for Neha, for before Anoushka, she had been a great lady, an archangel he was not ashamed to have once served.

I’ll ensure she receives it. Jason inclined his head toward Honor. “I take my leave.”

“I’m so glad you were able to attend.” Honor’s smile dazzled. “I’ll see you again when we return to the city.”

Jason left in a sweep of black wings seconds later, and Dmitri retook his seat by his wife . . . who leaned into him not long afterward, her voice a hushed whisper as she asked, “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Arm around her, he rubbed his thumb over the sensitive arch of her collarbone. “When we are alone,” he murmured, body hardening at the idea of her warm and na**d in his arms in their bed. “Come for a walk.”

Honor gave him a narrow-eyed look. “So you can talk me into your Ferrari?”

“I like what you do to me in my Ferrari.” Sultry and hotly feminine, she’d made him her slave the day she’d taken him with such lush confidence.

A slow, slow smile from the woman who owned him body and soul. “Maybe we should make a detour on our way back to the Tower after the reception.”

He knew his eyes were gleaming, but he didn’t care. Leaning forward, he captured her lips in a kiss that made the guests around them cheer. “A long detour.” It was a promise.

4

Over fourteen hours of intense flight later, Jason used the night clouds to his advantage as he circled the stone and marble of the magnificent fortress perched on a high ridgeline. It was known simply as Archangel Fort, for it was where Neha made her home. Bathed in the light of a full moon that hadn’t yet begun to wane, though morning lay only a few hours away, its defensive walls glowed not the amber gold they were under the sun’s rays, but a pale, haunting silver.

Having stashed his small bag for later retrieval, he’d earlier flown down toward the dark mirror of a lake at the base of the fort, done a sweep over the slumbering city beyond. From the lower vantage point, the fort had appeared a mirage, a fantasy imagined.

A fitting throne for the archangel who was queen of this land.

Flaring out wings of ebony that absorbed the moonlight as they absorbed sunlight, he came to a silent, invisible landing in the shadows cast by one of the great gates that protected the fort, a gate big enough to dwarf an entire cavalry unit. Each gate was hidden from the previous and the next by the angles at which the fort had been built, cutting the sightline and providing no straight runs on which to build up speed that could be used to ram the next gate. As a defensive measure against a mounted attack, it was magnificent.

Flying enemies required further countermeasures, including the squadron of angels in the sky and the vampires armed with land-to-air weaponry on the ramparts. None of them had seen Jason. That was not to say they were useless—it was the rare guard who ever spotted a man who’d been designed to blend into the night. Jason was fairly certain he’d avoided detection by the satellite surveillance system, too, his ability turning him into an indistinct shadow dismissed by man and machine alike.

Rather than walking through the gate, he watched in motionless silence until he could predict the watch route and timing of the vampiric guards, then—taking advantage of a fleeting blind spot—flew up and over the gate to land on the edge of the geometrically patterned gardens on the third-level courtyard.

The fountain in the center sparkled in the moonlight that lit up the courtyard to luminous brightness. Neha’s private palace, he knew, was to the left of his landing position, its marble walls inlaid with ancient motifs created from semiprecious stones. But that was not its most stunning feature—thousands of diamonds had been embedded into the walls, intertwined into the design, until the palace could glitter as hard as the stone itself . . . or shimmer with a fiery heart that awoke wonder in young and old.

“Of all the buildings I have seen in my lifetime, it is the Hira Mahal that steals my breath.”

It had been Titus who’d said those words, and the warrior archangel was not a man given to poetry. Jason could understand the urge, for the Hira Mahal or Diamond Palace—also often referred to as the Palace of Jewels—was a work of art unlike any other. Now, rising from his low, crouched position, he once again timed his movements to avoid the guards and reached the glittering door of the palace without being seen.

The guard who opened it in response to his knock hissed in surprise and went for a weapon.

“I assume that is the spymaster,” said a feminine voice from within, the language the principal dialect in this region. “Do come in, Jason.”

Keeping the guard in his line of sight, Jason walked into the glimmering illusion of the palace to see the Queen of Poisons, of Snakes. Unlike when she’d spoken with Raphael, Neha was now the picture of grace where she sat on a thronelike chair, her body clothed in a sari of palest green rather than the stark white of mourning. She, like the rest of the room, shimmered with the candlelight bouncing off the endless cascade of faceted gemstones.

“Lady Neha.” He swept down into a respectful bow that nonetheless made it clear he was no sycophant and never would be. He’d learned the elegant movement from Illium, and it was useful on the rare occasion when he had to make a public appearance in front of one of the Cadre.

“You surprise me.”

Greeting complete, he met the penetrating brown of her gaze, conscious of the fine emerald-hued snake she wore as a living bracelet. “Did you expect a savage?” he asked in the same dialect, having long ago learned the dominant languages of the world—including variations used in the home territories of the Cadre. Secrets, after all, had no one language.

Lips painted a sedate blush curved. “You do give that impression.” Rising from her heavily carved chair of black marble, the carvings inlaid with gold, she came down the three steps to a floor covered by a hand-knotted silk carpet the shade of sapphires under sunlight.

When he didn’t offer her his arm, she raised an imperious eyebrow.

“I need both arms free to fight.”

Neha’s laugh was delicate . . . hiding a shrill note beneath. “So honest, but then that is a clever lie, is it not? A spymaster can never give everything away.”

Jason said nothing, having no interest in playing this particular game.

“Come,” she said with a gleaming smile that held the appreciation of an immortal who rarely lost a battle of wits and who had only shot her first volley, “it’s time to meet the one to whom you will swear fealty in blood. All is in readiness for the ceremony.”

Jason laid out his single condition as they walked. To his surprise, Neha not only made no demur to his stipulation as to the duration of the vow, she welcomed it.

“You are too dangerous a creature for Mahiya.” An unreadable darkness in the archangel’s tone. “The poor child will likely die of fright unless she knows she’ll soon be free of the chains that bind her to you.” She paid no heed to a large owl flying silent as a ghost just beyond the open outdoor passageway where they walked. “Mahiya is not capable of handling such a burden for long.”

Again, Jason kept his silence. The princess had never struck him as weak, but he’d only ever caught the most fleeting glimpses of her, for she was no power in the court, not at the center of any intrigues, and thus of little interest to a spymaster. Yet he knew it could all be a clever subterfuge, Mahiya a well-hidden blade. It made little sense to charge a fragile “trinket” with keeping watch on the movements of an enemy spymaster.

On the other hand, Mahiya might have been the only available choice, the sole known direct descendant of the same ancient bloodline as Neha who was both alive and not bonded to a lover.

Even as he went over everything he knew of the princess, he took in the liveried and armed guards hidden behind fluted columns of red stone; the way modern lighting had been integrated to appear a seamless part of the centuries-old structure; the lithe loveliness of the ladies-in-waiting out for a night stroll who bowed as Neha led him not across the gardens, but up a level and into the fourth-level courtyard.

As the exquisite palace on the highest level was used only to house guests the caliber of the Cadre, and otherwise left empty but for the watch rotation, this was effectively the most remote section of the fort, the walls falling off steeply on either side. However, parts of it were newer than the rest of the structure, this level having been altered from its original design roughly three hundred years ago.

A pavilion, delicate columns holding up the roof, sat in the center of the courtyard. That much was unchanged, but gardens had been added around it in the shape of a single stylized flower, each of the “petals” planted with different blooms. A fountain created gentle music somewhere, but he couldn’t immediately see it—then he realized the water was cascading down the raised sides of the pavilion to run into fine channels that kept the gardens healthy in spite of the desert climate in this part of Neha’s territory.

Where once the entire courtyard had been surrounded by interconnected apartments, there were now two separate palaces—one on the side that faced the jagged terrain of the mountains and one that overlooked the city. The remaining two sides appeared to have been part of the older architecture. However, both sets of buildings now stood apart from the palaces, the apartments no longer interlinked.

The entire section was under heavy guard.

Those guards didn’t bow as Neha passed, their absolute attention on their task. Sari whispering in the wind as she walked, Neha kept her wings scrupulously off the clean stone of the pathway that led to the lamp-lit pavilion, the otherwise open sides curtained with gauzy silks currently tied back to columns that reminded Jason of elongated vases, the arches above finely scalloped. A woman stood at the center of the pavilion, and she wore a sari that may have been palest pink, but appeared a creamy white in the soft light—as if she mourned where Neha didn’t.

   
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