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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(16) by Nalini Singh

“I’ve made it a point to be a presence in the vampire community since my return,” Janvier said, understanding Dmitri’s concern. New York—in particular, Manhattan—had a heavy vampire population. An outbreak of bloodlust could paint the city crimson-black, fragile mortal bodies lying in the streets like broken toys. “It was simple enough to slide back into the community, since I knew a number of people from previous visits to the city.”
Dmitri’s lips curved. “The ability to charm your enemies and make friends wherever you go has always been your gift, January.”
Naasir snorted at the literal translation of Janvier’s name. It was an unusual one, given to him by a girl of sixteen who was in love with her baby—a baby born during the first minute of a long-ago January night. The time and date were facts his mother had known only because right before she pushed her son out into the world, she’d heard the sky explode with fireworks as the wealthy mortals and immortals who lived in the nearby settlement celebrated the new year.
That sweet, romantic girl had loved him to the day she died as a tiny, wrinkled woman who’d lived a glorious life.
“My Janvier. My New Year’s gift.” Warm, soft hands on his cheeks, a brilliant smile that hadn’t faded an iota in all the decades of her life. “I am so proud of you.”
Warmed by the precious memory, he smirked at Dmitri. “At least people don’t run screaming when they see me coming.” The other vampire was simply too old to fully conceal the lethal depth of his power.
“Do you think I could jump to the ground from here?” Naasir asked conversationally.
“No,” Dmitri replied. “I’d have to scrape you up with a shovel.”
Naasir frowned, stared down at the distant city street. “Pity.”
Sometimes, even Janvier didn’t know if Naasir was kidding or asking a serious question. “If you don’t need me to handle anything else immediately, I’m going to visit the injured.” He’d gotten into the habit of dropping in, updating the fallen men and women on news of the outside world—the kinds of things that would make them laugh or groan.
“I’ll hit the vampire clubs tonight,” he added, “get a feel for things.” If the computer searches on the tattoo and fingerprints came up empty, the clubs would also be a good starting point when it came to tracking the identity of his and Ash’s victim.
As soon as her name formed in his mind, it was as if the past minutes hadn’t existed. He was back on the snowy street outside the morgue, watching the woman he’d waited two lifetimes to find walk away from him.
•   •   •
Mulling over the strain he’d seen on Janvier’s face before the Cajun left, Dmitri turned to the vampire who remained. Naasir was unique, the only one of his kind in known history. He was also dangerous to himself at times, with as little sense of self-preservation as a four-year-old. “If you crack your skull by falling over,” he pointed out, “you won’t get to have dinner with Elena and Raphael tonight.”
Naasir jerked up his head, eyes shining. “Dinner?”
“Yes, you’ve been invited to the Enclave. Elena would like to welcome you back to the city.”
Naasir crept away from the edge a fraction. “I want to go to dinner,” he said decisively. “Will there be proper meat?”
“Montgomery will ensure you get fed.” He was severely tempted to turn up at the dinner himself, just to see Elena’s reaction to Naasir’s unusual eating habits. “Tell me about Amanat.” The lost city risen to the surface after an eon was home to the Ancient Caliane, Raphael’s mother and a staggering power.
“Twice a week,” Naasir said, “Caliane lowers the shield that protects the city so her people can go outside. They do so in small herds, scared and clinging to one another.” There was no judgment in the words. “It may take months for them to overcome the fear seeded by the loss of one of their own.”
Dmitri wasn’t surprised. Caliane was strong, but the people who’d come with her into her long sleep were gentle, cultured beings with no real capacity to protect themselves. “Lijuan’s territory?”
“I was able to infiltrate it without being detected after Jason gave me the advance data.”
Dmitri had already received Jason’s report, but the spymaster had focused on the politics, as well as on any news of Lijuan’s whereabouts, while Naasir had been directed to pay attention to the populace.
“Her people are in the grip of a stunned kind of shock,” the vampire said, “but there is no despair, not at the level there should be. They are waiting, and erecting shrines—where they kneel and pray for Lijuan’s swift recovery.”
“Damn.” Dmitri had been hoping Raphael had managed to kill her off despite Raphael’s own belief otherwise.
Killing an archangel, Raphael had said, has always been a difficult task. Killing an Ancient might be an impossible one—and while Lijuan isn’t an Ancient, she’s close enough to it that I believe it’ll take an extraordinary event to eliminate her.
“I’ve thought of multiple methods to kill her,” Naasir said. “Unfortunately, she keeps regenerating, even in my imagination.”
That was the crux of it. If nothing could eradicate the threat of Lijuan, hell would erupt on earth. “Share your ideas with the sire.” Naasir didn’t think like the rest of them, had come up with surprising maneuvers before.
“Do I need to take a gift for Elena? Is that the thing to do?”
Dmitri fought the urge to tell him yes. Naasir’s idea of a gift tended to be interesting at best. “Do what feels natural. Neither the sire nor the consort expect us to be anything other than who and what we are.” That fact was at the core of why he served Raphael; there was no need for pretense.
“I’ll take a gift,” Naasir said after a minute. “It’s what Jessamy taught me to do when invited to a special dinner at someone’s home.”
Dmitri wondered if Honor would mind if he changed their plans and invited them both to dinner at the Enclave.
•   •   •
“It lives!”
Ashwini pointed her finger at Demarco. “I haven’t shot anyone this week.”
The streaky blond-brown of his hair more on the brown side right now, given the winter sunlight, the irrepressible hunter jumped over a table in the Academy dining hall to grab her shoulders and squeeze. It was his form of giving her a hug—most of the hunters who were her close friends knew she had trouble with too much physical contact.
Leaning forward, she hugged him. He was part of her family and she understood the value of such loyalty and affection in a way no one who hadn’t lost a family could. It had all gone wrong so long ago, and now there was no way to fix the family into which she’d been born. But she could do this; she could hold on to the family she’d created.
“You teaching today?” she asked when she drew back.
Demarco flicked his finger at one of her earrings, the fall of bronze circles making a tiny metallic ping of sound. “Just finished doing a one-on-one strategy lesson with an older student.” He led her back to where he’d been seated with a cup of coffee and a half-demolished banana chocolate chip muffin, the two of them detouring to the counter so she could pick up a muffin and a chocolate milk for herself.
They’d just sat down when Honor walked in.
“I thought I saw your name on the board,” Demarco said. “Aren’t you meant to be in class?”
“I postponed it for fifteen minutes to give the students time to change and catch a breath after a combat session that ran overtime.” She slid into the chair next to Ashwini, nudging at Ash’s shoulder with hers in hello before sneaking a piece of chocolate off Demarco’s plate. “Mmm.” She sighed, eyes closing. “I don’t care how old I get, I’m never going to lose the taste for chocolate.”
“I thought Dmitri gave good blood?” Demarco smirked.
“I’m going to murder Ellie,” Honor said, her cheeks hot.
“Don’t blame Ellie.” Ashwini gave her friend a chunk of chocolate from her own muffin. “You start to stutter every time one of us asks about the blood drinking.” Honor was the first hunter they all knew who’d become a vampire, and, family being family, they were nosy as hell about the experience.
“Then,” Demarco added, “you go this amazing shade of red and seem to lose the ability to form words.”
Laughing, Ashwini took a sip of her milk. She was happy to see her friend so alive and vibrant. Dmitri might be a bit of a bastard, but he’d brought Honor back from the bleak world in which she’d existed after the hell of her captivity, and for that, the vampire had a friend in Ashwini.
“Did Dmitri mention the case I’m working?” she asked her friend, feeling her way before she mentioned the details. The last thing she wanted to do was drag Honor back into the horror she’d survived.
“Yes.” Honor’s skin pulled taut over her bones, her voice vibrating with withheld emotion when she said, “I hope Raphael fries the evil bastard after you catch him.”
Demarco leaned forward, lowered his voice. “What’s the case?”
Reassured by Honor’s anger that her friend wasn’t in a bad headspace, Ashwini told him. She knew he wouldn’t speak to anyone else about it unless she gave him the go-ahead. “Have either one of you heard anything that might help?”
“I wish I had,” Honor said, her fury a thrum beneath her skin. “But I haven’t really been on the streets since I got back, mostly teaching and at the Tower, helping Dmitri deal with the Legion. Now and then, the Primary will talk to me in an ancient language I’ve studied but never expected to hear. It’s fascinating.”
Ashwini shivered at the thought of the winged army that had appeared out of nowhere. Most people assumed the fighters had arisen from a secret compound that belonged to Raphael. Ash knew that was wrong, very, very wrong. Even from a distance, they gave off such a sense of age that it was a crushing pressure against her senses.
Sometimes it felt as if the entire ocean lay on top of her, the weight of it at once vast and strangely freeing. The last time she’d woken breathless from that particular dream, she’d walked out to her little balcony to see a Legion fighter sitting on the railing.
He’d stared at her. She’d stared at him, the hairs rising on her arms.
An instant later, he’d flown off, his batlike wings silent in the night-draped sky.
Demarco tapped his finger on the table, the sound tugging her back from the memory of the surreal encounter. “Ransom was saying something about his street friends having noticed a weird vibe in the clubs. You should talk to him.”
“I was hoping he’d be here.” A former street kid, Ransom had contacts the rest of them couldn’t access, and with his leg currently in a cast that meant he couldn’t actively hunt, he’d been drafted in as an Academy instructor for the duration.
Demarco glanced away, staring through the casement windows at the snow that had begun to fall again, the flakes fatter and heavier than when Ashwini had come inside. “He took the day off.”
Ashwini caught Honor’s eye. Turning to Demarco, they said, “Spill,” in unison.
“Shit.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I can’t. He’ll skin me. You’ll know tonight.”
They trained their best “Talk or die” scowls on him, but he folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. Ashwini knew that look. He wasn’t going to budge. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you better have a damn good excuse for keeping it from us.”
“Trust me.” Grinning, he unfolded his arms, all open charm, but while she felt the affection of a friend for him, his smile did nothing for her as a woman.
Not like the smile of a certain vampire.
“Talking of secrets,” Demarco drawled, “you and the Cajun—”
Ashwini thumped a blade into the table in front of the other hunter, left it quivering in a vertical position.
“Watch it, Dem”—Honor laughed—“or you might end up dog food.”
The other hunter threw up his hands. “It was an innocent question.”
“Anyway,” Ashwini said pointedly, “if you hear anything that might be useful, pass it on.” She figured Ellie already had the info via Raphael.
“Will do.” Demarco glanced at his watch. “Gotta go. Have to pick up a vampire who decided to skip out on his Contract.”
Ashwini and Honor stared at him. “And you were sitting here eating a muffin?” Honor asked in a dumbfounded tone. “Isn’t a pickup a little more, I don’t know, important?”
“Genius booked a bus ticket. I swear to God,” Demarco said, doing up the buttons on his pale brown corduroy jacket with leather patches of darker brown at the elbows. “Under the name Bill Smith.”
Ashwini rolled her eyes. “I guess it’s better than John Smith.”
“No, that’s his real name. Plus, since he was good enough to provide photo ID when he booked, I know it’s my target.” He grabbed a deep blue woolen scarf and wrapped it around his neck twice. “I know what you’re thinking, that he’s throwing me off the scent—but I did my research. Bill Smith is an accountant who goes by the book.”
“Then why is he attempting to skip out on his Contract?” Only the morons, the deluded, and the arrogant tried to cheat the angels. Especially when the resulting punishments were known to be pitiless. Ashwini would’ve felt sorry for the vamps she brought back to face punishment except that no one had to choose vampirism. Once you made that bargain, though, it was your responsibility to keep it.
After all, there were no take-backs when it came to the near-immortality bestowed in return for the hundred years of Contracted service.
“Bill Smith thinks he found a loophole,” Demarco answered with a roll of his own eyes. “That’s according to the certified letter he left his angel. And there might be a woman involved. Isn’t there always?” A woebegone look. “Us poor males don’t stand a chance.” Gloves on, he left with a quick laughing salute, promising to message them if he did in fact pick up Bill Smith at the bus station.
Alone with Honor, Ashwini said, “Dmitri giving good blood aside, how’s the vamp thing going?” They’d talked after Honor’s return to the city, but her friend continued to adjust to her new life.
“It is a bit weird, realizing I’m not human any longer. I forget all the time and then something reminds me and I go through the surprise of it all over again.” She snuck a taste of Ashwini’s chocolate milk. “But no one’s treated me any different—at the Guild, I mean. I was worried about that, you know?”
“Idiot.” Only way a hunter lost his or her right to the loyalty of her brethren was if she betrayed them. “You do realize you’ll now be a hunter for eternity?”
Honor’s smile turned her eyes an incredible jeweled shade that was breathtaking, her immortality unmistakable at that instant. “I’m happy, Ash. Happier than I’ve ever been. Dmitri . . .” A shake of her head. “I don’t have the words.”
“You don’t need them.” Ashwini had sensed the soul-deep connection between Honor and Dmitri the first time she saw them together. As if two broken halves of a whole had found their way to each other, and in the process healed the fractures in one another.
Sometimes, she thought Janvier could do the same for her, if only she’d let him in.
Honor closed her hand over Ashwini’s where it lay on the table, the two of them having been friends long enough that the other woman wasn’t threatened by her abilities. Ashwini, in turn, had no problem dealing with Honor’s touch. Even with the horror she’d suffered, Honor was Honor, no ugly surprises, just an old, old soul. The nightmares that had tormented her in the aftermath of her abduction were long gone, vanquished by a fierce spirit that had chosen love over darkness.
“It’s a wonderful thing, Ash . . . and you can have it with Janvier. He adores you.”
“I know.” It was a rasp of sound, the need inside her a vast emptiness.
She adored him, too.
And because she did, she had to find a way to tell him the truth.