Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(9)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(9)
Author: Nalini Singh

And no one, not even a woman determined to protect herself in any way she could, could learn to be a master fighter simply by watching, then attempting to copy those movements in the privacy of her bedroom or up in the isolation of the mountains. However, to ask for help would be to pay a price she couldn’t ask anyone to pay.

Her first fledgling friendship as an adult—two hundred years ago—had resulted in the angel in question having both his arms and his wings excised for an outwardly unrelated offense. Mahiya would never forget the way his blood had coated the stone of the warriors’ courtyard, darkening the granite to near-black even as his screams echoed off the walls of the surrounding barracks.

Mahiya had understood the brutal lesson, had never again attempted to build bonds with those in the fort, until many believed her a creature of conceit. Better that than to have their screams ringing in her ears as that young angel’s did to this day, though he was long healed.

“No one ever sees Jason coming. No one.”

The overheard words reverberating in her mind as she reached the courtyard, she heard him say something to the two angels at the door before he reappeared at her side. She glanced at his wings as they crossed over to the mountainside palace, expecting to see them silvered by the waning moon as were the black filaments in her own wings, but there was only darkness at Jason’s back—if she hadn’t known him for an angel, she’d have thought the spymaster a vampire.

Blinking, she stared, though it was a rudeness. “How do you do that?”

He didn’t ask her to explain what she meant. “A natural gift honed by time.”

Conscious that this predator—fascinating and darkly intriguing—was deadlier than any other she’d faced save Neha, she walked up the steps of the palace where Jason would stay for the duration. Though it wasn’t overtly guarded, only a fool would assume it wasn’t under constant watch.

When she walked through the open doors and turned to welcome Jason inside, he paused. “You live here.”

“Yes.” And had done so since she returned from the Refuge school, but it wasn’t home and never would be.

Soon, she promised herself, soon I will have a home where I will be safe, free from Neha’s bitter hate and the shadow of a father who didn’t know the meaning of fidelity.

Lowering her head in an apparent gesture of subservience lest Jason see too much, she said, “I’ll show you to your room.”

He followed her upstairs and into the sprawling room that overlooked the courtyard. Once, that had been the room she’d shared with Arav, believing herself loved. Desperate for happiness, she hadn’t wanted to see the truth until it slapped her in the face.

“You have been a most amusing diversion.” A laughing, condescending pat on the cheek at her bewildered expression. “And rather delightful. But Neha has approved my territorial proposal, and I’m afraid I must return to my lands and cease partaking of your pleasures.”

That heartbreakingly young, naïve girl was long gone, but Mahiya refused to allow the poison of Neha’s hatred to infect her—she knew full well Arav had only used her as he had because he’d divined her pain would please the archangel. That was a stain against his honor and said nothing of Mahiya’s own. She would love again, and she would love with all her heart, living her life in a brilliance of hope and joy.

“Will you be needing anything?” she asked the spymaster, who, feminine instinct whispered, was far more dangerous to her than Arav had ever been.

“No.”

Stepping back, she pulled the wooden doors shut and walked quickly to her own room, situated right next to his. However, she knew she’d be too late and she was. By the time she opened the doors to their shared balcony, Raphael’s spymaster had disappeared into the gray twilight that was the first harbinger of night’s fading kiss.

* * *

Gliding on the cool winds of the hour before dawn, Jason came to an easy landing on one of the walls of the heavily fortified Guardian Fort. It overlooked Archangel Fort and was considered an extension of it, a place where a considerable number of Neha’s angelic guard made their homes. Seen from its strong walls, Archangel Fort was a great lady yet asleep, though the scattering of lights burning in the windows told him the place never truly closed its eyes. As it should be. The Tower in New York never slept, either.

He saw an angel come in to land at the lower fort at that instant. From the way he brought himself to a harsh stop with two simple backbeats, Jason pegged the flyer as one of the warrior guards. Those guards were not exclusively angelic—Neha had her share of vampires in all positions, displaying no bias that could be utilized as a vulnerability.

If the archangel had had vulnerabilities, they’d been named Anoushka and Eris.

Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved the small object he’d secreted away even as he passed Mahiya the heavy gold ring. He’d taken the masculine ring exactly for that purpose but hadn’t actually expected her to catch the movement. Something else to add to his growing mental file on the princess who watched him with eyes that saw far too much for a woman who’d been cloistered within sumptuous palace walls her entire adult existence. Now, he used his extraordinary night vision to examine the find he hadn’t returned.

7

The ring was a woman’s from the look of it: fine strands of gold woven around an opal at the center. Quite aside from the feminine quality of the design, the ring was too small to have fit even the little finger of Eris’s hand. And, Neha was known to dislike opals, considering them a bad omen, so it couldn’t be hers.

Mahiya’s ring finger . . . yes, it would fit. However, he had the niggling feeling that opals were not the princess’s chosen gemstone. Clearly, he’d seen something his conscious mind couldn’t articulate, but that made him certain that should Mahiya be free to exercise her will, she would wear bright, cheerful jewels like citrine and peridot, aquamarine and canary diamonds.

“Amesyst. Is that how you say it?”

“Almost. Here, listen to me say it again. Amethyst.”

Lashes lowering, rising again at the fragment of memory, he focused on the piece of jewelry once more. It was the sort of quiet, pretty ring a woman might wear constantly, an everyday item, perhaps something with sentimental value. Modest, but with a fine color to the opal and a touch to the design that spoke of a master jeweler Jason knew in Jaipur, it was unlikely to belong to a servant, even had maids been permitted within Eris’s palace.

And, given Eris’s proclivities, an innocent explanation for the presence of the ring was so unlikely as to be an impossibility. However, if another woman—a lover—had indeed been permitted within the walls of Eris’s luxurious prison, it could not have been done without the goodwill and silence of at least one pair of guards.

“A silver tongue, he has ever had it.”

Add wealth to Eris’s gift of charm, plus perhaps a certain history with the guards, for many in the elite unit had served centuries, and it may have been enough to induce them to forget who it was they served. Neha had always draped her consort in the most expensive furs and silks, the most dazzling jewels—if he had “lost” a piece or two, the archangel wasn’t even likely to notice, much less care.

Even without the inducement of money, it might be that the men had felt sympathy for the husband who had strayed. In most angelic unions, it would’ve meant the end of the relationship, not a lifetime of confinement, the sky forever out of reach. Yes, Jason could see how the guards could’ve been persuaded to look the other way while Eris entertained.

As for the initial contact, a still-loyal servant could’ve carried the messages after Eris caught a glimpse of the object of his attentions through the stone lace of the smaller balcony that faced the courtyard.

Having memorized the pattern of the ring and ascertained that it carried no engraving on the inside, he slipped it away. He didn’t yet have enough information to uncover the name of the woman who’d worn it, but he knew where to look. Not in the inner court . . . or not in the center of the inner court. She’d be on the edges, a beautiful woman who felt she hadn’t received her due. Someone who’d both be flattered at Eris’s attentions and full of enough pride that she sought to cuckold an archangel.

After all, she’d been audacious enough to wear an opal in Neha’s court.

It was a game no one of age and honed intelligence would dare play, so she had to be young and impressionable enough to fall for Eris’s blandishments. To strip the veil off her identity would mean entering the battlefield of court, which Jason had no intention of doing. It was Mahiya of the cat-bright eyes, and silence as haunting as a wolf’s midnight song, who had the necessary skills to navigate that particular terrain.

“Or maybe the killer used extra garrotes as ties?”

Not much fascinated Jason after a lifetime spent unearthing secrets and listening to the darkest truths, but he found himself returning again and again to the problematic Princess Mahiya, a woman who didn’t fit her environment and who had secrets in her gaze older than they should be.

It mattered little. She was an intellectual curiosity, one that would lose its luster once he knew every facet of her. Of that he was certain. Nothing and no one had managed to get under his skin since the day he dug a deep hole under the shade cast by happy yellow hibiscus flowers, the seagulls cawing and fighting overhead.

Stretching out his wings with that truth in mind, he flew off Guardian Fort and along the ridgeline before winging his way high into the dark gray skies, the clouds yet heavy enough to conceal him from detection. It was here, far above land, that he felt more at home than anywhere else in the world.

“Slower, Jason!” A hand gripping firmly at his ankle as he tangled his wings and threatened to plummet.

“Father!”

“I have you, son. Spread out your wings slowly . . . yes, like that.”

Catching his other ankle, his father pulled him farther into the sky. “I’m going to release you again. Ready?”

   
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