Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(8)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(8)
Author: Nalini Singh

Stepping to the stone filigree, he found himself looking out over the city beyond the lake at the foot of the fort—the steep drop that led to it would’ve been a quiet torture to a winged being forbidden to ride the winds. “I heard a rumor that Neha clipped Eris’s wings in truth.” Despite the violation of the rest of Eris’s body, the wings Jason had just seen had been whole.

“I was too young at the time to remember it myself,” Mahiya said from where she stood with one hand on the doorjamb, “but I’ve heard it whispered of by others. However, she didn’t repeat the punishment once his wings grew back . . . and I think she regretted ever having done it.”

Love, Jason thought, could be the most debilitating of weaknesses.

“Jason, I’m sorry I scared you, son. I did not mean to rage.”

Walking further down the balcony, he took in the windows along the inner wall, each created with ten red and green pieces of stained glass. The individual pieces were squares roughly the size of his palm, the effect delicate against the stone of the palace. The glass was echoed in the doors that stood open to reveal a bedroom that appeared to occupy most of the second level, its inner walls gently curved to embrace the central core of the palace.

A magnificent chandelier poured muted, flickering light from the ceiling. Its crystal sconces cradled a thousand candles, many of which had burned down, else the light would’ve been sharper, brighter. “Eris didn’t care for modern things?” he asked the woman who’d entered the bedroom from the corridor.

“No, he just preferred candlelight in his private chambers.”

Which meant the room downstairs had acted as his receiving area. “How many guests was he permitted?”

“It depended on Neha’s mood.” An answer that said much about Eris’s existence. “Never any women aside from Neha and myself. Even the servants who worked in this palace were all male.”

For a man who had been a favorite of women, it would’ve been akin to having a limb amputated. “Do you think the rule was observed?”

“I think Eris did not have any wish to anger Neha further.”

That didn’t answer the question, and the way Mahiya had subtly angled her face away from the light as she spoke told him she knew more than she was saying.

The stealthy hunter in Jason rose to full wakefulness.

6

“A leopard, as they say,” he murmured, his mind working at the question of Mahiya’s true loyalties, at whose secrets she kept, “does not change its spots.” Eris had never been good at self-denial where women and sex were concerned.

An adoring conquest looking up into the face of the golden god who was Neha’s consort, her eyes blazing with shy desire.

Jason had witnessed that particular scene approximately a century and a half after Neha’s marriage, during a ball given by the archangel Uram. At the time, he’d put Eris’s responding smile of sensual invitation down to male vanity, never considering the other man might ever actually accept such an invitation.

Yet Eris had needed to have his ego stroked enough that he’d fathered a child upon the sister of the woman he’d sworn to honor. Jason didn’t fool himself that Eris had loved Nivriti—the man had been a narcissist, had cared about no one but himself. And in spite of his trespass, he had survived. What was there to stop such a man from taking another risk and seducing a lover within the walls of his luxurious prison?

“Tell me,” he said, pinning Mahiya with his gaze, “Did Eris have a lover?”

Mahiya had avoided his earlier question, having realized far too late that she’d betrayed a knowledge and a curiosity beyond the woman she was meant to be. Her only defense for the unprecedented failure was surprise—it had been so very startling to speak to someone who watched her without judgment or pity, and who did not divine a lack of understanding simply because she chose to keep her silence . . . but of course he wouldn’t. Jason was a man who guarded his words, yet she had not a single doubt that his intelligence was a piercing arrow.

Now, looking into eyes a deep, impenetrable brown that stripped her to the bone, she realized it was too late to put the mask back on.

Jason had already seen her.

There was a strange exhilaration in showing her true face. “I have no proof of a new infidelity,” she said, “but there were times of late that I caught a certain musk in the air.” A woman should not know such things about her father, but Eris’s only claim to paternity had been through their shared blood.

“You didn’t tell Neha.” It wasn’t a question.

Mahiya held that dark blade of a gaze. “I would not be the messenger who bears such tidings.” Neha would’ve struck her down, ended her for it. “You’re welcome to attempt it.”

His response to the challenge was a calm “Let us see if it proves necessary.”

The exhilaration in her bloodstream slowly turned to ice as she watched him explore every inch of the palace that had been Eris’s home. She knew his reputation, but it was only now, after witnessing his thorough, meticulous search, that she realized the exact level of Jason’s skill, his dedication . . . and understood that none of her plans would come to fruition should he decide to pledge his skills in service to Neha.

Gritting her teeth to fight a shiver, she realized the sands had just begun to fall with increased speed through the hourglass. The Seven were meant to be an impregnable unit, immune to enticement from others in the Cadre, but Neha had had a glint in her eye that said she held an ace. If she did . . . Mahiya and her traitorous intent had to be long gone before Jason accepted the archangel’s offer.

Heart thudding hard enough to bruise against her ribs, she shut the door on those thoughts lest they betray her, and followed Jason into a large bathing chamber below the level that held the receiving area. Curls of steam rose from the clear water. “This was meant to be turned off,” she said, sensing the fine tendrils of hair at her nape beginning to curl from the humidity. “I’ll take care of it after we leave.”

Not responding, Jason began to walk the edges of a bathing pool so large, it could’ve easily accommodated five adult angels. Ancient by design, the chamber had been put in when the palace was constructed for Eris’s incarceration, and he’d made good use of it. Many a time when she’d been sent by Neha to see if he needed anything, it had been to find him lounging in the bath.

“Has Neha not slit your throat yet?” A bored sigh, his wings spread as he leaned against the edge, arms lying on the painted tiles carried from Italy by angelic couriers. “A pity.”

The stab of memory wasn’t enough to distract her from catching the subtle twist of Jason’s hand as he slipped something into his pocket. “What’s that?”

No surprise or guilt on his face. “I assume this is Eris’s?” he said, retrieving the object.

Walking to stand nearer to him than she had till then, she examined the thick gold ring set with tanzanite, dangerously conscious of the penetrating intensity of the spymaster’s eyes. “Yes.” Only centuries of practice kept her voice from cracking under the silent, inexorable pressure. “Not a favorite, so he may well have forgotten it here.”

Jason placed it in her hand. “I would not want to be accused of stealing.”

Mahiya felt color tinge her cheeks at the gentle, lethal words. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply anything of the kind.” What she’d meant to imply was that he was hiding something from her. That, she couldn’t permit.

“Look at her, Eris. She has your father’s eyes—they are so unique.”

Words Neha had spoken in a venomous murmur when Eris angered her a century ago. By that time, Mahiya had already been well aware of the single reason for her continued existence. However, Eris was now a corpse who could no longer be tortured with the serrated knife that was the presence of his illegitimate child, and Nivriti lay dead in some forgotten grave, her flesh rotted to dust and her bones bleached white.

The only one left who’d be pained by the mere sight of Mahiya . . . was Neha.

Mahiya had to keep the archangel from remembering that as long as possible. She was almost ready to escape the fort. Almost. But almost wasn’t good enough when an archangel hated you with a spite that had survived three centuries, a spite that was a caustic flame dipped in poison. The only purpose she currently served was in keeping watch on Jason. The instant she failed in that task, she’d join her mother below the earth, the maggots feasting on her flesh.

Jason said nothing to her apology, shifting to walk back out and upstairs to the main door. He didn’t shorten his stride to accommodate her, and she found herself almost running to keep up, the neat folds of her sari flaring out in front of her. Breathless, she wondered if he sought to humiliate her before the guards. If he did, he’d be in for a long wait—the guards had seen her in far more humiliating positions.

The crack of a whip.

Fire on her back, sticky liquid trailing down her broken flesh.

Jason came to a sudden stop ahead of the still-closed doors, his voice shattering the memory of the punishment meted out to her in Neha’s inner courtyard, the whip wielded by the Master of the Guard.

“My rooms?” he asked, his voice so pure, she found herself wondering, not for the first time, if he ever lifted it in song.

“In the palace across the courtyard,” she said, barely managing to keep her wing from sliding across his as she halted her own forward momentum.

Jason was not a man any woman would touch without invitation.

Now, reaching out, he opened the door and waited for her to exit. Courtesy, she thought—he’d given her his back earlier, had clearly written her off as a threat. She was too practical to be insulted. If Jason wanted to hurt her, she could do nothing to stop him. Hundreds of warriors, angelic and vampiric, might live in the fort, but the only offensive or defensive training Mahiya had came from what she’d been able to glean by covert study of their training sessions.

   
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