Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(6)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(6)
Author: Nalini Singh

Jason already knew that her face was small and pointed, her body softly curved and of a height that would barely reach his breastbone, her eyes a light tawny brown so vivid against her honey-colored skin and black hair that they were the first things anyone noticed about her. The eyes of a lynx or a puma. Eris’s eyes had been blue, but Eris’s father possessed the same distinctive irises that marked Princess Mahiya as illegitimate.

However, no one in the world had Mahiya’s wings—deep emerald and vivid cobalt with splashes of rich black, the wild spray akin to a peacock’s fan. Except that somehow, Mahiya had managed to remain out of the limelight, until no one mentioned the princess with wings to rival a bird famed for its beauty when they spoke of the most stunning wings in the world.

She went into a graceful curtsy as Neha approached, bowing her neck to reveal the vulnerable na**dness of her nape, her hair parted down the centre and gathered into a simple knot at the back of her head. “My lady.”

“Do try not to frighten her too much, Jason,” Neha murmured, the fine filaments of cobalt in the primaries of her otherwise snow-white wings whispering of their blood tie. “She is rather . . . useful on occasion.”

Jason nodded in greeting toward the woman who made broken razors slash through Neha’s tone, received a curtsy as elegant, though not as deep as the one she’d given the archangel. However, she maintained her silence as Neha lifted a single finger and a turbaned vampire wearing the uniform of the guard appeared from behind one of the columns, a velvet-lined tray in his arms. The crimson fabric was home to a ceremonial knife, its hilt embedded with yellow sapphires.

Neha picked it up with long fingers clearly at home with the blade. “It’s time.”

The ceremony was an ancient one, the words Neha asked him to speak to Mahiya, and Mahiya to him, unchanged for millennia. Stripped of its ritual robes, the core of it was a promise of loyalty that did not challenge his deeper oath to Raphael, yet that bound him to keep faith with Mahiya and her blood for the duration of his task.

“I hold your vow,” Mahiya said, speaking the closing words for this part of the rite. “Until the name of the traitor is known. It is done.”

Neha smiled into the thick silence after Mahiya accepted their bargain. “Your neck, Jason.”

“I think not,” he said without blinking, and turned his arm to reveal his wrist. “Blood is blood.”

“You do not trust me?” A silken question that dripped menace.

“I trust no one at my neck.” He was powerful enough that he’d most likely survive a beheading, but that didn’t mean he wanted to chance it.

The head falling from his blood-slick hands to thud onto the floor. “I’m sorry . . .”

When Neha’s eyes remained ice-cold, he expected her to bleed him far more than necessary, but she made only the shallowest nick on his wrist, right above his pulse. As a droplet of blood welled onto his skin, she ordered Mahiya to angle her neck and made another cut above the beat of the other angel’s pulse.

This last act was the final, and for many, the repugnant reason why the ceremony was no longer in favor. “Princess Mahiya,” he said, stepping close enough to see the taut line of her jaw, her spine as rigid as the tendons in her neck.

A slight nod, permission for him to seal the vow with the most basic of acts.

Dipping his head, he flicked his tongue over the ruby red droplet that shivered against her dusky skin, the warm iron of it metallic against his tongue. He stepped back, held up his wrist.

Mahiya placed both of her hands under his wrist and lifted it to her lips. The touch of her lips on his skin, light as butterfly’s wings. Lifting her head, she said, “The blood vow is sealed,” her expression unreadable in its very lack of deep emotion. Except for that single betrayal of distaste during the sealing of the vow, it was as if they stood at a cocktail party, exchanging pleasantries, the effect was so curiously shallow.

Perhaps that was all there was to the princess, but Jason’s every instinct whispered otherwise.

He turned to Neha, never losing his awareness of the enigmatic Mahiya. “Eris?”

Clapping her hands, she laughed. “Oh, what a thing to say directly after a primal act of blood.” A reminder that in times lost to the mists of history such vows had been spoken between lovers, the blood exchanged an erotic kiss. “You truly are cold, Jason.”

He’d been called that many times in his life, and it was a fact he didn’t dispute, though deep within him burned a cauldron of black fire. “It’s why I am here.”

“Of course. Come.”

When Mahiya went to drop behind him, Jason shook his head. “I will not have you at my back.” She was an unknown, her threat level as yet a mystery. “Walk ahead of or beside me.”

A flash of startling tawny brown, but she fell into step at his side . . . a fine, fine hum of tension across her shoulders. It was so subtly camouflaged, even Jason might not have caught it if he hadn’t already been on alert for any sign of the woman behind the mask. Mahiya, it seemed, did not like having anyone at her back either. Unusual for a court “trinket,” even more so for a princess who should’ve been used to a retinue.

Neha said nothing further until they reached the palace that overlooked the city, its wide doors guarded by two angels armed with swords and guns both. “Treat this investigation with the respect my consort deserves.”

Understanding the archangel had no intention of accompanying them, Jason waited for her to take her leave before he entered the palace through the doors the guards pulled open, their eyes flat with suspicion. The scent of putrefaction hit him the instant he walked in, and he knew at once that Eris still lay within, in spite of the time it had taken Jason to reach the fort.

Neha’s love for Eris had been such that she would never offer up his violated body as a spectacle, so this must’ve been a rational choice to preserve the scene. He hadn’t expected it of her after the madness he’d seen in her eyes when she spoke to Raphael, and he should have—Neha was strong, not simply in power, but in mind, regardless of her recent losses. He would not forget that again.

Holding his wings tightly to his back in order to avoid any inadvertent contact with objects inside the palace, he said, “Where is Eris?” He could have followed the scent of decay to the body easily enough, but he needed to open a line of communication with the woman who stood silent by his side.

Mahiya was a mystery, and Jason did not like mysteries.

So he would solve her.

5

“This way.” Mahiya began to walk, every cell in her body conscious of the black-winged, black-garbed angel keeping pace beside her . . . an angel who fascinated her. The same way a child might be fascinated by the gleaming edge of a blade, wanting to run a fingertip over the metal to see if it really was that sharp.

Such fascination always ended in blood.

Yet she couldn’t stifle her reaction, for he was unlike anyone she had ever before met, a man who wore his sleek midnight hair in a neat queue and was unafraid of an archangel’s anger. If the latter were not intriguing enough, he sported an intricate tribal tattoo on the left side of his face, the ink a rich black against the warm brown of his skin, the swirling curves of it telling a story she wanted to understand but knew instinctively he would not share.

That face itself was a mix of cultures, the Pacific and Europe entangled to create a masculine beauty that was as harsh as it was compelling.

Raphael’s spymaster.

It was what Neha called him. As a description, it was succinct, but it hid as much as it divulged. He was so silent that had she not been able to see him from the corner of her eye, she’d have thought herself alone—a man gifted at becoming a shadow, was Jason, able to navigate the dark secrets of the Cadre unseen and undetected.

However, he was nothing so simple as a spy who saw and reported. He was one of Raphael’s Seven, that tight-knit band of angels and vampires Mahiya little understood. All she knew was that the seven incredibly strong men had chosen to put themselves in service to an archangel—and that their loyalty was reflected in Raphael’s own.

“Such a power is Jason.”

Neha had murmured those words after Jason agreed to come to the fort, agreed to swear a blood vow to Mahiya. It wasn’t the only thing the archangel had said, her lips twisted into a smile that dripped poison.

“Raphael’s Tower will be crippled when the spymaster changes his allegiance. And he will . . . for I can offer Jason something Raphael will never be able to match.”

Mahiya didn’t care about Neha’s vengeful game playing. She cared only about the cold, practical contract that underlay the ceremony of the vow Jason had spoken, her bones filled with a chill determination to complete this task without dropping the mask of inoffensive grace that was her most powerful weapon. No one considered her a threat. Neither would this spymaster.

Reaching the gauzy curtains of amber and gold that fluttered in the archway leading into the high central core of the palace, she took the time to tie them to the sides before waving her hand inward.

Jason remained in place.

“I will not have you at my back.”

Ignoring the prickling at her nape that warned her of lethal danger, she preceded him into the echoing central chamber that rose all the way to the roof. Her stomach threatened to revolt against the stink, but she brought her gag reflex under control through sheer grim determination and practice—Neha had left Mahiya in the palace to “keep Eris company” for hours after his murder.

“He was your father, after all. I give you time to say your farewells.”

For once, Mahiya did not think it had been a conscious cruelty—Neha herself had returned to sit with the body until an hour prior to Jason’s arrival, her fingers stroking Eris’s hair, the deep mahogany streaked with lighter strands as a result of all the time Neha had recently allowed him to spend in the searing sunshine of the courtyard.

“He is a creature of the sun, born on a clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean.”

   
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