Jason looked down at the black silk of her hair, his mind filling with images of a desolate building covered with moss, its windows and doorways gaping maws. “Abandoned.”
“Yes. When my mother was supposedly executed.” A quiet exhale. “It was made to last, the palace. Built of marble within the crater of a mountain, the ‘lake’ is filled by the monsoon rains. I don’t know if it still stands—”
“It does.” He told her of his previous flight to this territory. “I came in as the sun was setting, and something caught the light. When I turned and circled, I saw only the shimmer of water—it took me a minute to find the building half hidden within the lake.” Covered by moss as it was, the water palace merged into the deep dark green of the lake, its camouflage perfect.
“We have the whole day,” Mahiya said, her body warm against his own. “Neha is in seclusion—I do not know for whom she mourns, if it is for the people lost or her pets, but I’ve seen her like this before. She won’t reemerge before dark, will not think to ask where we have been.”
“Come,” he said. “It may take me a few passes to locate the palace.”
* * *
Mahiya stared down at the building that had become a chameleon over the centuries, hiding in plain sight. Covered not only by a dark green moss that echoed the color of the water, but by fine vines of the same shade, it appeared nothing so much as a floating clump of greenery. Desolate as this place was, few angels would pass over it, and those that did wouldn’t be tempted to linger. It was a testament to Jason’s curiosity that he’d discovered it.
“I didn’t have time to land then,” he said, hovering beside her with an ease she envied. “We can’t count on its stability.”
“It’ll hold,” she told him. “It was built to withstand water, to endure through centuries.” Diving without waiting for him, she headed toward what she guessed had once been a large balcony or courtyard that hung out over the water. A dark blur passed her a second later, and Jason had landed, his wings folded back, before she touched down.
A storm swirled in irises gone a turbulent black. “That wasn’t smart, Mahiya.”
Fascinated, she stared. Never had she seen him angry, and the leash he kept on his anger even now made her wonder at the depth of his control. “I knew you were faster,” she said. “And that you would’ve stopped me had you glimpsed anything that indicated danger.”
The storm crashed, dark and violent. “You shouldn’t have such faith in an enemy spymaster.”
“I don’t. I have it in you.” Reaching out to touch his wing, she smiled at this man who was an enigma she would never get the chance to solve and yet who grew deeper into her heart with each breath. “Let’s explore.”
Jason should’ve held his ground, forced Mahiya to acknowledge that she’d acted with rash impatience, but he had the thought that unleashing his anger on her at this instant would be akin to smashing the most fragile glass. He saw the confusion behind the eagerness, saw that she didn’t know if she wanted her mother alive or not, for if Nivriti lived, she had a sadistic streak of violence.
“Stay close.” Reaching back, he drew his sword from its sheath.
Mahiya raised a hand as if she’d touch the obsidian blade that seemed to roil with black flame, before dropping the blade and falling in step beside him. Deciding against using the vine-shrouded door in front of them, he walked with quiet steps around the side of the palace. They had to be careful of their footing, the moss slippery.
The palace had been designed to sit above the water level, but it was clear the monsoon rains had been strong enough to overwhelm it in years past. The marks of those deluges were waves of brown on the discolored marble of the building. It was probable the lake had some mechanism by which the waters could be bled off to other waterways—he’d seen such in other parts of Neha’s land. But this palace and its surrounds had lain fallow for over three hundred years, any blockage in the system untended.
A doorway allowed sunlight to spill into the room beyond.
“Wait.” He entered with care, taking in every desolate corner before nodding at Mahiya to enter.
“There’s nothing here.” Disappointment turned her voice leaden as she took in the debris and moss and the dried remnants of sludge that had come in when the waters rose. While the air wasn’t damp, the sunshine probing deep, the layers of dirt created a musty, earthy scent that made it clear this room had seen no other living presence for centuries. “The furniture must’ve been made of wood, rotted.”
“Yes.” He stepped to a shadowy doorway leading inward. “If I were hiding within, I would choose the core.” Where light would be least likely to escape come night.
Mahiya’s wing brushed his as she took her place beside him once more.
The rooms that followed were as bleak as the first. Stripped of furniture, carpet, and paintings, they were hollows broken and echoing, though Mahiya was able to guess at the functions of some from the placement of windows devoid of glass and doors long destroyed.
“It must’ve been magnificent when alive,” she whispered. “Like a jewel on the water at night, the lights reflected in the lak—”
Warned by her sudden silence, he followed her gaze and saw color. Crimson. Shiny and sleek, a ribbon that might have come from a woman’s dress.
“Lovers,” Mahiya murmured, picking up the decadent hue that did not belong in this lonely palace devoid of laughter, “may be using this as a pace for discreet assignations.” It was patent she fought hope.
“Perhaps.” It was too old and without comfort to tempt most, but he’d known young angels to do startling things.
“It’s soft.” She rubbed her fingers along the ribbon. “It can’t have been here long or the damp would’ve seeped in, turned the satin rough when it dried.” Her voice was near soundless, her wings held tight to her back to give Jason as much room as possible as they moved through the palace.
Two rooms later, he held up a fisted hand.
Not moving a muscle, Jason listened. But the wind, it didn’t whisper the name of Mahiya’s mother, nor did it warn of danger. Still, he’d sensed something, and a second later, he knew what it was.
Sensuality, luxuriant and potent, and a perfume a woman might wear.
The cause of the silent warning identified, he dropped his hand but put his finger to his lips. Nodding, Mahiya held her silence as he reached out to part a doorway of vines . . . to reveal a room as disparate from the others as a ruby was from a hunk of rock. Here, the marble had been cleaned with scrupulous care, until in spite of the permanent staining, the walls gleamed.