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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(13) by Nalini Singh

12
 
Dmitri moved his bishop on the chessboard in the flickering light of the candle that burned in a holder to his left. It put him in prime position to capture Aodhan’s king.
 
Illium leaned back on his hands, wings lying spread on the carpet. “Looks like he has you, Sparkle.”
 
“I need to kill you. Later,” Aodhan muttered, staring at the board.
 
The three of them were sitting in the aerie at the very top of the Tower. It had been Dmitri’s lookout during the battle, the wraparound windows offering three-hundred-and-sixty-degree visibility. New York glittered beneath them in every direction, the Tower planted on a field of stars.
 
It reminded Dmitri of the brilliant quiet of a tiny cottage on a small farm long ago, before either Illium or Aodhan had been born. The nights had been so clear above his long-ago home that he’d stayed awake long past when a farmer should be asleep, simply to watch the stars with his wife.
 
The memory of Ingrede’s smile, her kiss under the starlight, it no longer drew heart’s blood. Because his heart had come back to him. She was changed and so was he, but they were who they needed to be for each other.
 
Honor loved it in the aerie and often kept him company when he had care of the Tower at night. Tonight, however, she was working on an intriguing historical document in their apartment, having laughingly told him to have fun with the “boys.” The “boys” were the two lethal angels with him—one sprawled to his left, the other frowning in concentration in front of him.
 
The aerie had no furniture, the three of them seated on the floor.
 
Not that it was spartan now that it was no longer a war room. The floor was covered by a fine Persian rug Dmitri had brought out of personal storage, having picked it up a hundred years past, in a market along the old Silk Road. It had been hand-knotted by a gifted artisan, the colors ruby red and yellow-gold with hints of midnight blue.
 
On top of it lay the large, flat multihued cushions Montgomery had supplied from the warehouse where he stored so many things, Dmitri had no idea of the inventory. That was strictly Montgomery’s domain—except when the butler took offense at how another immortal was treating a priceless work of art and decided to “relocate” it to his own care.
 
Thankfully, Dmitri had only had to handle that once. It had taken him three hours in the warehouse to unearth the four-inch-tall statue of a goddess of the erotic arts. The piece had been exquisite enough to prompt Dmitri to offer to buy it from the vampire who owned it, but the man wouldn’t part with his treasure until a decade ago. At which point Dmitri had placed the statue in Montgomery’s private sitting room at the Enclave house.
 
Most often, the butler displayed his purloined items in Raphael’s home, and the archangel made sure each piece was quietly reunited with its owner. Many men—angel, vampire, or human—would’ve dismissed a servant with such a peccadillo, but Montgomery was as loyal to Raphael as any of the Seven, and the sire understood the value of such loyalty.
 
“A flaw does not make a man worthless,” Raphael had once said to Dmitri. “Else I would’ve been discarded long ago.”
 
Now, Illium snacked on the sugared dates Montgomery had supplied, the sweetmeats part of an array of food that would tempt any appetite. Reaching out, Dmitri took a single grape, enjoying the fresh, sweet flavor and imagining feeding Honor the taste from his lips.
 
“Date?” Illium said with a glint in his eye.
 
Dmitri ignored the painted wooden bowl the angel held out. “I’m going to help Aodhan kill you—after I torture you by making you drink champagne while listening to Mozart.” The blue-winged angel hated both.
 
Illium grinned, unafraid of Dmitri and Aodhan’s combined wrath. “Don’t tell me you’re still heartbroken over Favashi,” he said, naming the archangel who had vast date plantations in her lands. “I won’t believe you—I admit I wasn’t even a twinkle in my mother’s eye during your liaison with the lovely Archangel of Persia, but I’ve since seen you together, and you never looked at her the way you look at Honor.”
 
“Illium has the right of it in this, Dmitri. Honor is your heart.” Aodhan’s crystalline eyes refracted Dmitri’s face into countless fragments, the fine grooves around the angel’s mouth the only sign of the pain he continued to bear as his injuries healed.
 
The neck wound had closed first, his immortal body concentrating its efforts on the most dangerous threat. His damaged wing had come next, but while Aodhan could fly short distances, and had been encouraged to do so by the healers in order to strengthen the weak new muscle, it’d be several more weeks before he could return to full flight status.
 
His broken bones had healed, but his left arm, as the most minor injury in immortal terms, had only regenerated partway to his elbow at this stage. It was currently covered by a neatly pinned white shirtsleeve in deference to the fact that cold could sometimes retard healing by diverting the body’s resources into generating warmth.
 
It spoke to the power in Aodhan’s veins that he’d healed at such speed. Most angels his age would’ve still been bed-bound, their recovery counted in months, not weeks. The best news, however, had nothing to do with Aodhan’s physical health. No, it had to do with a slow but deep healing of the soul.
 
Illium’s voice broke into Dmitri’s assessment of the injured angel. “I think our honored second is stalling. Why does the memory of the steel hand in a velvet glove that is Favashi make you gnash your teeth?”
 
“It’s not the memory of Favashi that aggravates me.” Dmitri scowled. “It’s the memory of my own stupidity.” The female archangel had nearly manipulated him into becoming her personal weapon.
 
Dmitri had no argument with being the blade of the person he loved—he was lethal and there was honor in protecting that which was precious to the heart and the soul. He did have a problem with being used for a fool. “It took me far too long to see through her machinations.” He ate another grape. “At least Michaela wears her self-interest and narcissism openly, while Favashi pretends to be kindness and grace while having the soul of a cobra.”
 
Aodhan shook his head. “She did nothing a male archangel wouldn’t do in seeking to secure a strong immortal to his court. It is wrong of you to compare her to Michaela.”
 
Dmitri knew Aodhan was right; immortal politics didn’t permit any but the ruthless to survive. In truth, Favashi and Michaela had little in common beyond their gender. Yet the whole idea of manipulating strong immortals into service continued to irritate him. “We all serve Raphael of our own free will. You’d think the lesson would be clear.”
 
Hair glittering diamond bright even in the muted light, Aodhan said, “You forget, Dmitri. Raphael is yet considered young. We are an experiment—most of the old ones expect you in particular to rise up and rebel any day now.”
 
Aodhan had always been closest to Illium, Dmitri over five hundred years old when Aodhan was born. So he hadn’t realized until now how much he’d missed the angel. Aodhan had always seen the world through an incisive lens, something that was visible in his artwork.
 
“Sometimes,” Dmitri said, “I think I’ll never understand angelkind.” A thousand years he’d been by Raphael’s side—with minor deviations along the way—and still people refused to believe that theirs wasn’t only the relationship of an archangel and his second, but a friendship.
 
“You aren’t alone,” Aodhan said. “I think some of the old ones have become so insular, so ensconced within their coterie of like-minded friends, that they no longer grow. They are like the butterflies Lijuan kept pinned to her walls.”
 
In contrast, Raphael lived in the center of one of the world’s most vibrant cities, his Seven traveled continents on a regular basis, and, critically, both Dmitri and his sire had fallen for extraordinary women whom angelkind did not truly understand.
 
One old angel had said, “Your wife is beautiful,” to Dmitri, a puzzled look on his face. “But why did you marry her? Would she not have served better as a concubine?”
 
The only reason Dmitri hadn’t ended the other man’s life then and there had been the true confusion in the question. The angel had no comprehension of love, and that was a tragedy so terrible, Dmitri could offer no harsher punishment. Love had savaged him once, but it had also given him the greatest joys of his life.
 
The memory of his children’s sweet faces might be painful beyond bearing, but no evil could ever steal the tender joy that was the sensory echo of holding them in his arms, of Misha’s laughter and Caterina’s gurgling smile. And then had come Honor, bringing with her an incandescent light.
 
“I think you’re right about the hidebound old ones,” he said to the angel across from him. “Now, Sparkle, are you intending to move or do you concede defeat?”
 
Aodhan was, in many ways, the most even-tempered of all the Seven. So when he looked up with eyes glowing and power crackling at his fingertips, it was an unexpected sight. Especially given the lighthearted provocation. Then the angel smiled slowly and moved a single piece on the board. “Check. And mate.”
 
Dmitri looked down in disbelief. “No,” he said, trying to figure out how Aodhan had pulled off the impossible.
 
“There, there,” said a new voice. “You can beat me and feel better about your skills.”
 
All three of them looked up and muttered various imprecations, Illium’s the most creative welcome. Naasir bared his teeth in return, silver eyes reflecting the candlelight.
 
“How the f**k did you get into the city without alerting any of the sentries?” Dmitri had put the entire security team, as well as the general warrior population, on high alert. This time around, he’d also alerted the Guild to be on the lookout, his respect for their abilities having grown during the course of the battle.
 
It was all part of a game Naasir had been playing with the others in the Seven for centuries. As a child, when he’d first been brought to Raphael’s stronghold, he’d tended to lie in wait below Dmitri’s desk or pounce from the top of the bookshelves in the stronghold library, giggling like a maniac when he was found out—or when he captured his “prey.”
 
Naasir had been tiny then, as small as Misha had been when he died. Four in human terms, but he’d lived three decades by then. Still, he’d been a child. A feral one, but a child nonetheless, and the game was one of the few things he did that was free from the rage inside his small body. So Dmitri had let him play, Raphael in agreement with his decision.
 
As Naasir grew from babe to boy, he’d found it funny to sneak into places where he shouldn’t be—on one memorable occasion, he’d decided to infiltrate Lijuan’s dining room. He’d apparently been seated at the head of the table pretending to eat a live pet cat when the Archangel of China discovered him. Lijuan, relatively normal back then, had found the incident amusing, and Naasir had escaped with his life.
 
It had been one of the few times Dmitri had come down hard on him, managing to drum it into his head that Lijuan and the others in the Cadre were dangerous. He’d never forget what Naasir had said to him when Dmitri yelled that he didn’t intend to bury another child and that Naasir needed to have a care for his life.
 
“Am I a person, Dmitri? Will you be sad if I die?”
 
Hardened and cruel though he’d become, the innocent question had shaken him. “Yes,” he’d said, as honest in his answer as Naasir had been in his question. “You are a person. You are Naasir. I’ll lose a piece of me if you die and it’s a piece I’ll never get back.”
 
Naasir had stared at him for a long time before coming over to hug him. “Okay, Dmitri. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was a person before.”
 
As a result of the fact that Naasir had grown up under Dmitri’s care, their relationship was unlike the relationship he had with the others in the Seven. Naasir still obeyed his every order, still asked him questions a child might ask a father. Dmitri often thought the sliver of humanity that had survived in him until he found Honor, had survived because of the tiny, feral boy with silver eyes who had pelted out to see him when he returned to the Refuge after an absence.
 
The same way Misha had run to him after his trips to the market.
 
It had torn his heart to pieces each time Naasir did the same, but Dmitri had caught him in his arms without fail, unable to bruise the spirit of the wild boy who didn’t know that Dmitri was meant to be without heart, without hope.
 
That boy had never lost his delight in his favorite game.
 
These days, Naasir liked to sneak into cities and territories. Not only did the penchant make him the best scout in Raphael’s forces, but Naasir’s abilities were an excellent test of a city’s defenses. The fact that it amused him was a bonus.
 
Coming down to the carpet in a movement as graceful as a cat’s, the vampire who wasn’t quite a vampire grabbed a large plate that held an entire chicken. “The sentry on the building with the blue lights almost caught me,” he said, ripping off a drumstick after sniffing at the meat and making a face. “She’s good.”
 
“Do we have holes in our defenses? If so, they have to be immediately plugged.”
 
“Only if the scout is someone better than me.”
 
Dmitri relaxed. Naasir’s skills at covert infiltration were unmatched, part of the reason he’d led the small team of saboteurs during the battle. “I just received a message from Janvier.” It had come in while he spoke to Aodhan about angelkind’s inability to comprehend certain truths. “He’s heading this way.” The news, the vampire had indicated, was bad.
 
“Is his hunter with the Cajun?”
 
“Not tonight.”
 
Having finished off the drumstick, Naasir crunched the bone in a way that made Illium and Dmitri both wince. “One day,” Illium said, “you’re going to get a bone shard stuck in your gullet.”
 
Naasir shrugged and tore off the other leg. “Let’s play chess.”
 
“Last time we played chess,” Illium replied dryly, “you threw the pieces out a Refuge window and down into the gorge.”
 
“I’m better at it now.” Naasir growled, but it wasn’t anger, simply an emphasis on his words. “Caliane is trying to civilize me.”
 
Having accepted the piece of meat Naasir held out, like a lion sharing with his pride, Illium said, “How is that progressing?”
 
Naasir gave some meat to Aodhan, too. He never did that with Dmitri because, in his mind, Dmitri was another predator who would be insulted by the offer. Dmitri wondered if Illium and Aodhan realized Naasir saw them as younger cubs who had to be fed by the top predator. He was the same with Venom. Not Jason or Galen, though. Jason, like Dmitri, had been an adult while Naasir was a child. Galen wasn’t that much older than Naasir in angelic terms, but the two had never known one another as children.
 
“I told Caliane that trying to civilize me is like trying to civilize a jungle cat,” Naasir said with a shrug. “We pretend to like people until we get hungry and want fresh meat.” A glance around, a glint in his eye. “I honestly do like you all. I haven’t thought about eating you for at least two centuries.”
 
Aodhan looked at the vampire. “I am relieved,” he said in a tone as serious as Naasir’s.
 
“Really, Sparkle?” Naasir moved out of the way with quicksilver speed before Aodhan’s very well-aimed bishop would’ve hit him dead smack in the center of his forehead, the vampire’s laughter as wild and gleeful as when he’d been a boy who’d managed to startle Dmitri by grabbing on to his leg under the desk.
 
Dmitri was rescuing the bishop when Janvier appeared in the doorway. Naasir hauled him into a back-slapping hug, the younger vampire returning the embrace as enthusiastically. When they drew apart, Naasir took a sniff of Janvier. “You smell of our hunter. Where is she?”
 
“Resting.” Janvier’s smile faded. “I have some bad news.”