“He tells me no lies.”
The quiet statement made Vanhi still in her energetic movements around the room as she settled this, straightened that. A heavy sadness in her expression, she laid a soft palm against Mahiya’s face. “I wish you would expect more, Mahiya child.”
“One day,” Mahiya promised, “I’ll have the chance to dream bigger dreams. Until then, I must work with what I have.” False hope could be more devastating than unvarnished pragmatism—she’d learned that during her attempt to find sanctuary with Lijuan years prior to the archangel’s “evolution.”
“Silly girl.” Lijuan’s dove gray wings swept the floor as she waved her hand, dismissing the guard who’d escorted an exhausted Mahiya into a cavernous room that echoed with sound. “You ask me to make a ruin of my friendship with Neha for you?”
“No. I ask only sanctuary.”
Eerie eyes of a strange pearlescent gray, staring at her out of a face with skin so pale, she imagined she could see the skeletal structure beneath. “Either you are feeble-minded,” Lijuan said, “or you are being disingenuous.”
Mahiya fought the ice invading her bloodstream to say, “You are far more powerful than Neha. She would not put your relationship in jeopardy for so insignificant a thing as I.”
“It follows that I have no need of you. You offer me nothing.” A smile that made Mahiya’s stomach clench, her bones rattle. “Your wings . . . hmm, perhaps I will keep you after all.”
That was when Lijuan had “invited” Mahiya to view her Collection Room, watching with that same inhuman smile as Mahiya bent over and threw up what little food there was in her stomach.
“Ju will clean that up.” The man who shuffled out of the darkness was . . . wrong. Jerking up, Mahiya ran the back of her hand over her mouth as Ju produced a mop and wiped away all evidence of her lack of control, his eyes black and dull, his movements that of a marionette.
“He was a strong man once, but I broke him. Still, I cannot let him go.” Lijuan reached out to stroke Mahiya’s wing.
Twisting away, she waited to be reduced to ash for her insolence, but Lijuan smiled. “A pity I cannot take you for my collection. Better I think, to return you to Neha. I will be patient, and ask her to give you to me when you are dead. I would not want such beauty lost to rot.”
One night and one day.
That was how long Mahiya had spent in Lijuan’s stronghold, a nightmare span of hours it chilled her to the bone to think of even now. “Vanhi,” she said, forcing her mind back to the present, “what are your thoughts on Arav’s death?”
“That piece of elephant dung may have insulted someone, or he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Vanhi shrugged, picking up a sari Mahiya had left out to air.
Walking to take the other end of the slippery fabric, Mahiya worked with Vanhi to fold it. “I don’t know. It all seems calculated somehow.”
“I tell you one thing, Mahiya child.” A solemn tone. “Games are one thing, but to play them against Neha?” Shaking her head, Vanhi used her fingers to draw an ancient sign meant to ward off evil. “Only bad things will come of this.”
* * *
Exiting the palace half an hour after Vanhi’s departure, Mahiya found an unexpected visitor about to take the steps to her door. “Venom.”
A smile lazy with charm, his eyes hidden from view by mirrored sunglasses that reflected her own face back at her. Dressed in black pants and a white shirt, his damp hair combed neatly, he appeared one of the more dangerous courtiers—the ones who had the brains to scheme and collude.
“Just Mahiya,” she said, soaking in the morning sunshine cascading from such a pure blue sky, it seemed obscene it might yet bear witness to further carnage. “If you’re searching for Jason, he is elsewhere.” As Neha had expanded his mandate, Mahiya was no longer expected to act the spy and report back on his activities.
“Jason.” She stepped out onto the balcony, fighting herself not to touch him now that the night had passed, not to attempt to claim rights of possession—it would be as foolish as attempting to own a storm. “Will you have breakfast before you go?”
“No, I have a meeting I must make.” He spread his wings, paused. “I will see you when I return.”
Perhaps it was a silly thing, but it meant a great deal to her that he’d knocked on her door instead of simply vanishing into the dawn, her spymaster who always walked alone.
“I should’ve called ahead,” Venom said, his voice fracturing the memory, his smile that of a man who knew how to coax and beguile women. “May I offer you an escort to your next destination?”
The playful flirtation made her smile. “I go to Neha.”
“The private audience hall?”
“No.” Mahiya frowned. “The message asked me to meet her near Guardian.” Looking up, she sought out the more spartan fort that overlooked Archangel Fort. It was isolated, with no one within hearing distance but Neha’s troops—who’d see nothing and do nothing should the archangel decide to eliminate the annoyance of her consort’s illegitimate child.
In truth, it would be no different than being at this fort. Except . . . Jason was here.
No, she told herself sternly, do not spin hopes out of air and a dark sensuality that had marked her deep within. Jason had promised to help her escape, but she had no further claim on his protection. “So you see,” she said to Venom, “I must leave you here.”
The vampire frowned. “Are you certain the message was from Neha? I saw her flying down toward the city not long ago.”
“Yes. We are to meet at the ruined temple just outside the walls of the fort.” Still, uneasy with the unexpected choice of venue, she reached into a hidden pocket in her tunic to retrieve the small card. “It is her hand.”
Taking the card, Venom rubbed his thumb over the script. “Yes, you’re right. But her writing’s not so ornate as to be impossible to forge. I don’t like the feel of this.”
All at once, she knew why Venom had come to the palace, and her heart twisted. “Jason told you to watch over me.” It did something to her to know that Jason cared enough about her to have asked another of the Seven to keep her in his sights. No one had watched over her since she left the Refuge and the protection of those who undertook the welfare of angelic young. She was not so proud as to refute the emotions his care engendered in her.