Light came in through a skylight devoid of glass and half covered by vines. Rain would easily penetrate the green barrier, but there was little threat of it this time of year. Certainly, whoever had set up this room was unworried about potential water damage to the rich indigo carpet that lined the floor or the cushions of gold-shot silk scattered over the bed in the center.
A small vanity stood against another wall, hairpins and jewels scattered across the surface. In front of it was a stool on which a woman might sit as she readied herself. “No vampire could’ve brought this in.” Not with the single road up the mountain buried under a landslide old enough to have scraggly trees hugging its jagged slope.
Turning at the shaken whisper, he saw Mahiya’s reflection in the mirror above the vanity, her fingers clutching at something.
Written on it was a single word: Daughter
* * *
Mahiya knew Jason had been right to insist they fly to a safer location before she opened the letter, but by the time they landed in a remote field dotted with a scarcity of trees and surrounded by nothing but balls of dusty foliage rolling across the endless vista, she felt as if her skin would split.
Then they were there and it was time. Back against a spindly tree that nonetheless provided shimmering gray shade, she stared at the red seal of the letter, while the black-winged angel who was no longer her enemy stood a dark sentinel. He said nothing, giving her the time to find her courage, break the seal.
My dearest Mahiya Geet,
I had faith you would find this. You and your dangerous black shadow. I thought to kill him for you at first—
Mahiya swallowed a cry, thrusting her knuckles against her mouth.
—but I realized upon further reflection that he is the only thing standing between you and Neha. And it is deliberate. So, then I must tell you I approve. You have made a better choice than I.
Her heart clenched at the pain inherent in that simple confession.
I am sorry I cannot be here to greet you, my beloved child. But this part is done. It was a test of my strength and skill. A warning, too, but we both know Neha is far too arrogant to listen, to understand.
This place is for you—stay here, be safe. Your spymaster will protect you. If he needs must return to Neha, be assured I will make certain he comes back to you unharmed after the real game is played and won. You cannot be in the court at that time. Neha will slit your throat and rip your beating heart from your chest, if only to wound me.
Your residence in this place will not be for long. Soon I will hold you as a mother should hold her child, while Neha bleeds heart’s blood and her people scrabble in panic and terror. I have had three hundred years to plan my vengeance.
Trembling, Mahiya walked to lean her face against Jason’s back, his wings strong and sleek and paradoxically soft on either side of her. “I don’t know what to think.” She passed him the letter without shifting from her position tucked against his back. He didn’t force her to move, didn’t attempt to turn and take her into his arms—as if he understood she just needed to lean on his strength a little until the world stopped spinning.
“There is a sense of damp to the letter,” Jason said after scanning the lines. “But the wax carries a faint impression of her scent still, as did the room.”
Her mother hadn’t been gone long enough to be erased from the palace. “I think her pride is such that it wouldn’t allow her to do what was done to the snakes.” But she had no doubt Nivriti had known of the needless cruelty. “She must’ve departed the lake palace after killing Arav, left some of her people behind to cause further disorder.”
Jason returned his gaze to the letter. “She cannot plan a martial attack—regardless of how long she’s had to plan, Neha is an archangel with a garrison at her command.”
Mahiya knew she should be saying something to that, but she felt lost in a world that had shifted on its axis.
My mother is alive.
A crackle of paper, strong wings shifting under her touch, and Jason was turning around. Startled, afraid that he was pushing her away when she so desperately needed an anchor, needed him, she froze . . . until he ran his hand over the back of her head and down to press against her lower back, just enough to let her know that he was there, his strength hers to use.
A sob rocked through her, and then she couldn’t stop, her entire body jerking, her bones suddenly brittle.
Strong arms, lips against her temple, wings of midnight opening to curve around her, until Jason surrounded her on every side. His heart beat strong and steady, his hands warm on her head and against her lower back, and his heat, it was a smoldering inferno over her skin.
That was the color of Jason’s power, she knew that without any doubt. It felt as if she was surrounded by a raging storm. The sensation should’ve been frightening, but the storm didn’t so much as lift a hair on her head, the calm within filled with such protective warmth as she’d never before felt.
She didn’t know how long they stood in the center of that storm, but after a while, she could breathe again. And every breath carried the scent of black fire. She couldn’t describe the intense wildness of the scent in any other way, but to her, it was the essence of Jason. Trying to get even closer to him, she managed to tuck her feet between his boots.
“My mother,” Jason said, his voice a low rumble against her, “was my favorite person in all the world. I loved my father, but my mother? She was the one I ran to when I got out of bed in the morning.” He stroked his hand down her hair, rubbed his cheek against her temple. “Then one day, she wasn’t there anymore. If the world suddenly changed and she stood in front of me, I would run into her arms just like that little boy.”
Raising her tearstained face to his, she said, “That’s what I want to do.” The visceral reaction had terrified her, speaking of a violent need she’d never acknowledged. “But I never had a mother, never knew her. I shouldn’t be responding like this.”
Jason moved the hand on her hair to her face, wiping the remnants of her tears away with this thumb, the touch rough, familiar. “You’ve dreamed about her, thought about her, wondered what she might’ve been like your whole life. It matters.”
“Sometimes,” she said past the knot in her throat, “when I was younger, I’d convince myself that she was an awful, hateful person, that she hadn’t fought for me hard enough. When I was really angry, I’d tell myself she never wanted me at all, actually gave me up to Neha.”