Archangel's Consort / Page 16

Page 16


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Violets. Ice. And a hereto hidden undertone of something light, fruity. Watermelon?

“Enough.”

The vampire’s hands tightened for an instant, and she almost hoped he’d attempt to drop her. But he behaved, and she was on her feet moments later. “I have his scent,” she said, gesturing to the body, “and I’ve weeded out yours. Anyone else been on the scene?”

He pointed up. “Just Illium and he hasn’t landed.”

Good, she thought, that meant the caress of poison had to belong to the killer. Focusing on that element, she began to pull apart the notes to create a more detailed profile.

Oleanders, rich and sweet, with a thread of darkest resin humming a discordant note, and below that a touch of juicy red berries bursting open. But the scent of oleanders in full bloom overwhelmed, it was so very, very intoxicating.

She was following the trail even as the thought passed through her head, barely aware of Venom remaining beside the body while Illium flew overhead. The scent meandered through Central Park, as if the killer had taken a stroll. Given his confidence, she more than half expected to lose him as soon as she hit the pond, but surprisingly, he hadn’t gone into the water.

Instead, she found herself following him to the edge of Fifth Avenue. Where the sensual whisper of oleanders snapped off with such suddenness that she knew he’d gotten into a cab. Blowing out a breath, she waved Illium down. “Trail’s cold,” she said when he landed. “Might as well lead me to the other site just in case he did scope that out.”

It was only as they were flying over the Hudson that she realized they were heading toward Raphael’s estate. Figuring the burial site had to be somewhere beyond, she found herself deeply shaken when Illium dove down to land on the edge of the wood that separated the mansion from Michaela’s U.S. home. He stayed in position as she walked in. Archangel?

Slightly to your right, about fifty meters ahead.

Raphael held out a hand when she reached him, but she didn’t take it, staring at the rectangular coffin-sized hole in the earth. “When exactly,” she said, “were you going to tell me he was going to be buried on the grounds of our home?” She understood that he had to control his vampires in ways that might seem cruel to her, but this ...

A chrome blue gaze met hers, vivid even in the night shadows. “I needed him close enough that I could maintain a mental watch.”

“How many others?” she whispered, feeling sick to her stomach. She’d walked these woods before, might well have stepped over them.

“None, Guild Hunter.”

The ice in his voice should’ve scared her, but she was too furious. “You know this is wrong, Raphael, keeping this from me. Yet you did it intentionally.” His expression didn’t change, but she knew without a doubt that she was right. “Why?”

“Because you have a mortal heart.” A pitiless statement.

She shook under the verbal blow. “Is that so wrong?”

“It is not a matter of right or wrong”—metallic blue, so very, very inhuman—“but of fact. This would have disturbed you to an extent that would’ve made it impossible for you to live here.”

It was the absolute truth, made no less so by the fact that he’d seen it with such cold clarity. Anger battled with other, deeper emotions, and it took her almost half a minute to find the control to say, “I want to ask you for something, Archangel.” He’d given her his heart, given her power over him, but until now, she’d never gambled anything on that power.

“What would you have, Guild Hunter?” So formal, so distant.

The part of her that was still the child abandoned by mother and father both was terrified of pushing him too far, until he left her, too. It was a nauseating sensation—but this was a stand she had to take. “Strike this punishment from the books. Surely there are other ways?”

Raphael was as unmoving as stone in front of her for a long, long moment. “Is it a boon you ask, Hunter?”

“No,” she said with slow deliberation. “I ask this as your consort. This . . . it’s not worth tainting the relationship between us.”

The Archangel of New York closed his fingers gently around her throat—not a threat, but a mark of possession. “Is our relationship so weak?”

“No.” She would fight to the death for it ... for him. “It’s something extraordinary—and it deserves to be protected against all the crap the world is going to throw at us.”

The metal receded as she watched, replaced by a penetrating, piercing shade akin to the mountain sky at noon. “Ah, Elena. So eloquent.”

“I mean it.” Her stomach was so tight, a thousand knots within.

“I will have Dmitri think of another suitable punishment.”

Air rushed into her lungs as she took a true breath. “I’m sure he’ll have no problems.” Dmitri was one of the oldest vampires she’d ever met—and he had a thing for pain. “There’s nothing here, scentwise.”

“I didn’t truly expect it. He was meant to be transported here later tonight, after having had time to put his affairs in order.” Raphael stroked his thumb over his consort’s pulse. “What is it I sense in you, Elena?” Fear, an insidious intruder, one that would steal her from him.

She gave a slight shake of her head. “Not you.” A pause. “Me. I’m a little messed up. Sometimes it all just roars back to the surface.”

Stroking his hand along the back of her neck, he tugged her close, took her lips in a slow, deep caress that reminded her the nightmares had no claim on her now—she belonged to an archangel.

His hunter lifted her fingers to her kiss-wet lips when they parted, eyes huge in the darkness. “Shokran, Archangel.”

“You are welcome, Guild Hunter.” Wings brushing over his consort’s, he turned to walk back to the house with her. “This murder is a message. It can be nothing else.”

“The question is who—” Elena froze. “The killer’s scent was heady with oleander. It’s a flower, but it’s also a toxic poison.”

“Neha.”

Leaving an exhausted Elena to her bath—though the idea of joining her was a much more pleasurable thought—Raphael walked down to the library and put through a call to Neha. The Archangel of India took her time answering, and her visage, when it appeared on the screen, was pure arctic chill. “Raphael.” With her hair pulled off her face into a tight bun and her features free of artifice, she had a pure, unadorned beauty.

The impression was furthered by the folds of the white silk sari set neatly over her shoulder, the stark shade bearing only the thinnest border of small faceted beads. Around her throat lay a necklace shaped to mimic a slender black serpent, its hissing mouth open. But of course, Raphael knew that was no necklace.

“Neha,” he said, watching as she allowed a cobra to twine its way around her arm. “You know why we’re having this conversation.” Vampires, Elena had told him as she sank into the bath, had strange, unexpected scents, so the potency of poison could mean nothing. However, as evidenced by Venom, Neha had a way of marking those she Made.

Now the Queen of Snakes, of Poisons, curved her lips into a smile that held an amusement as cold as that of the blood that flowed through her favored creatures. “It is but a game, Raphael.”

A mortal may have attempted to appeal to her conscience, tried to make her feel guilt for the senseless death—most likely deaths—she’d engineered, but he spoke to her pride. “It is beneath you, Neha, to act through such pathetic fools.”

Titus would’ve exploded at the insult, Michaela would’ve hissed in anger, but Neha ... Neha sighed and reached up to pinch closed the mouth of the snake at her neck, holding it shut until the creature started to struggle before releasing it. And still it stayed curled around her throat. “You are right,” she murmured. “But you helped take something I love from me, Raphael.”

“So you would take what I love from me?” So smart, so vicious, he thought, so like the snakes she kept as pets.

“I’m sure your hunter is none too pleased to discover that by becoming yours, she has placed everyone she loves in mortal danger.” Stroking her fingers along the cobra’s gleaming skin as she confirmed her part in the murders at the school, she met his gaze with eyes of darkest brown, eyes that were very much sane. “As for the other ... betrayal is always a hard pill to swallow. He was weak, ridiculously easy to break and control.”

Raphael had already set Dmitri and Venom the task of ensuring Neha had planted no more snakes in their midst. “Why kill him?”

Neha lifted a shoulder in an elegant shrug. “He may have known something, though the point is moot now. As a tool, he wasn’t the most useful one—and I’m sure he considered it a mercy. He would’ve never survived his punishment with his mind intact.”

Perhaps. But Raphael was quite certain the man would not have chosen to die by having his internal organs ripped from his living flesh. “You know what Anoushka did was anathema.” Neha’s daughter had been party to the brutalization of a child. It was one of the greatest taboos of their race.

“I am a mother, Raphael.” A pause, an instant of piercing sorrow. “I was a mother.”

“Now you would make other mothers feel the same pain?” Neha was one of the few in the Cadre who had always treated mortal children as precious.

A slow blink, cold and dark, as she stared at him with a gaze that had been known to ensnare lesser angels. “I think you will soon have far bigger problems to worry about than my modest games.”

Raphael said nothing.

Smiling, Neha reached out of the shot, and when her hand returned, those elegant fingers held a black orchid. “I thought this was a nice touch on my part.” She ran the ebony petals over the cobra’s skin. “It’ll amuse me to watch you when she rises. She left you to die broken on a field far from civilization, did she not?”

Having expected the taunt, he didn’t react. “Neha,” he said softly. “I will, if not forgive, not retaliate against these trespasses because you lost a child—but do not play games in my territory again.”

Neha laughed, a bitter hiss of sound. “What would you do to me, Raphael? I have lost that which matters most.”

“A lie,” he murmured, waiting until her laughter died to deliver his coup de grace. “You would not like to lose your power.”

Neha’s expression went flat, hard. “You are arrogant enough to think you have the strength to affect my rule?”

“Never forget that I was the one who executed Uram when it needed to be done.” It had taken something from him to end the life of another archangel, but Uram had turned monster and could not be allowed to savage the world. “Never forget what and who I am, Neha.”

The Archangel of India held his gaze for a long, long moment. “Perhaps your mortal has not changed you after all.”

Raphael said nothing to that, ending the call, but as he turned to walk up to join his hunter, he knew Neha was wrong. Elena had changed something fundamental in him. Do you wait for me, hbeebti? he asked, touching her mind, finding her awake.


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