Dark Hunger

Page 33

Turning, Raphael cupped her face, his eyes incandescent. “Caliane and Nadiel never lost one another, Elena. My parents loved even in the madness.” And so, Raphael thought, would he.

Elena’s hands fell to his waistband, finger hooking slightly inside. “Together,” she said, and he knew she was recalling what he’d told her about Caliane’s inadvertent admission when it came to the whispers that plagued his dreams, his hunter’s words a reminder of the promise they’d made to one another.

“We fall, we fall together.”

Eyes going to his right temple now, she shook her head, jaw set. “If you dare go before me, I will haunt you in the afterlife.”

“To be haunted by my heart is no threat.” Tugging back her head, he claimed her lips. He’d meant only to initiate a kiss, needing to taste the fiery life of her, but they were by the bed seconds later, her robe falling to the carpet to leave her golden-skinned body open to his caresses. Passion a crash of sensation in his blood, he took her to the sheets, their limbs entangled and skin hot as they forged another memory that would hold through eternity.

• • •

Her body feeling deliciously used, Elena fixed the final straps of the gorgeous ankle-length gown that had magically appeared in the luggage one of Raphael’s staff had driven to Amanat from the jet. She’d given up trying to figure out when or how formal clothes like these poofed into her wardrobe—or into her suitcase, for that matter—all she knew was that a tailor came by every couple of months, took her measurements, and things turned up when she needed them. She was good with that.

Today’s gown was sea froth around her ankles, the color an evocative azure blue, the tiny buttons that anchored the straps designed to hug her body faceted diamonds, and the azure lace accent along one side unexpectedly striking. She didn’t wear her workmanlike forearm sheaths but strapped on the jeweled upper-arm sheath and blade set Raphael had given her prior to the last ball they’d attended.

It had survived the ensuing carnage, and the blade, sweet and deadly, looked prettily decorative on her biceps. She slid a second blade into a thigh sheath, her dress created with a discreet slit that gave her quick access—the tailor knew who he was dressing, that was clear. Into the hair she’d put in a fancy twist, she slipped the blade pins given to her as a gift by Jason’s princess, the spymaster currently on the other end of the call Raphael had received as he was buttoning up his severely formal black shirt.

“What did he say?” she asked when he ended the call.

Taking in the sight of his consort in her finery, Raphael walked across to run his finger along the curve of her bodice, the way she arched her neck in a responsive shiver enticing him to bend, press his lips to her throat. “You appear a pampered courtesan.” The jeweled blade on her arm only added to that effect.

She smoothed her hands over the crisp fabric of his shirt. “Good”—her fingers slotting in the remaining buttons—“the better to fool people.”

It would be a stupid individual indeed who’d miss the acute perceptiveness of Elena’s eyes, the fluid hunting grace of her walk. “Jason,” he said, in answer to her earlier question, “has heard not even a whisper of other vampiric deaths such as the ones in New York, and no incidents with mortals as in Amanat.”

“Hmm.” Slipping her hand into his, she led him to their balcony, which overlooked the cobblestoned square that was to be the center of the ball, the area lit with old-fashioned standing lamps of delicate iron, and accented with the natural blooms of the city. “Are all immortal balls outdoors?”

“For the most part—a ballroom big enough to comfortably handle so many wings would be an impersonal structure.”

“Like a stadium.” She made a face. “I get why angels would prefer an outdoor setting. It’s much prettier this way. The carpet over the cobblestones—it must’ve taken the weavers a human lifetime to complete.”

Raphael nodded, making a mental note to take her to visit the master weavers in the Refuge on their next visit. Elena would appreciate both their skill and their artistry. “Do you see how the buildings are built in a staggered pattern around the square?” Sliding one arm around her waist, he pointed out the design with his other. “It’s so each rooftop has an uninterrupted view of the festivities.”

Elena’s face glowed as she took in the informal seating areas that had appeared on those rooftops, each warm with candlelight. “It was built this way on purpose!”

“Yes. Should we ever have a ball in Manhattan,” he said, laughing when she pretended to stab herself in the eye, “it will require us to get creative. I was not thinking of angelic balls when I built my city.”

“Thank God or I’d have had to divorce you.” Leaning against him, their wings sliding intimately against one another, she returned to the darkness beneath the sparkle and the gilt. “If Jason’s right and Amanat was the only other target aside from New York, then it reduces the short list of possible enemies down to one.”

“Yes, Lijuan seems the perfect candidate, yet Jason is dead certain Lijuan has not left her stronghold for the past month.”

Elena frowned. “Not that I doubt him, but she has that whole other noncorporeal form.”

“I had the same question, but your favorite archangel has apparently been highly visible attending celebrations thrown in her honor in her territory.” He watched a tiny bird come to sip at one of the large blooms that climbed up the side of the house, its wings a splash of red and green. “Lijuan was at a winter festival during the entire span Kahla was missing from the city.”

“Damn, that takes us back to square one.”

“Not quite, for we now know Lijuan is not the diseasemonger.” Yet his instincts said she had a hand in this nonetheless. “The others, bar Neha”—who had a legitimate reason for excusing herself from the gathering—“will be here tonight.”

His consort smiled as the jewel-toned bird hopped onto a small table to one side of the balcony. “I’ll see if I can get close enough to pick up a scent,” she said, her eyes on the tiny creature. “Maybe since this is a bloodborne disease, the angel will carry some hint of it in his own blood and it’ll speak to my hunter senses.”

Raphael had no disagreement with her idea, but, gripping her chin gently, he held the silver-gray of her gaze. “Do not permit yourself to be separated from me this night.” The situation was too volatile, the risks deadly. “I would declare war should anyone do you harm, and the entire immortal world knows that fact.”

• • •

Two hours into it and the ball was extremely . . . civilized. Elena, her senses hyperalert, was almost disappointed that everyone proved to be on their best behavior—even Michaela. The archangel had chosen a dress in dazzling crimson, the cut caressing her every curve, her curls glossy and lush down her back, her eyes made up with sweeps of bronze and gold; it was impossible to deny her sheer, painful beauty.

Of course, that beauty didn’t make her any less of a bitch.

“Raphael,” she said with a sensual smile. “We parted badly and I was at fault. You must not be angry with me”—a pout—“we have always been meant to be intimate friends.”

Pointedly ignored by the female archangel and happy about that fact, Elena focused on drawing in Michaela’s scent. All she picked up was the complex notes of a lush perfume . . . then there it was, that bright splash of acid hidden deep.

I can definitely sense Uram in her.

Can you judge the depth of the infection?

No. Her angel-sense was nascent at best; the fact that she could pick up anything at all from Michaela was likely due to the fact that Uram had been a bloodborn angel. Bloated with the toxin that turned humans into vampires and was meant to be purged at regular intervals through the Making process, he’d gone truly insane, becoming a monster more vicious than any vampire, his thirst for blood and death unquenchable.

After Michaela, they ran into Elijah and Hannah, followed by Titus, then Favashi. Neither Elena nor Raphael had any suspicions about Elijah, but she took a scent reading nonetheless. Nothing. The other two archangels didn’t register on Elena’s senses, either, but that might not mean anything. When Astaad, with his dark eyes and neatly trimmed goatee, lifted her hand to his mouth, her mind flashed to what his own hands must’ve done mere months ago, when he’d beaten one of his concubines to a pulp.

That brutal act would’ve made Elena want to cut off the hands in question, but according to Raphael’s own experience in Astaad’s territory, while the other male was a harsh and often cruel ruler, he adored his women, spoiling them to outrageous levels. No one had ever before seen him raise so much as his voice to any one of them, and the general belief was the aberration had been connected either to the Cascade or to the disruption caused by Caliane’s Awakening. So while it wasn’t easy, Elena tried to keep an open mind when it came to the male archangel.

As soon as the formalities were complete, she turned her attention to the vampire by his side. The woman’s eyes were a haunting darkness, her rich brown skin and striking features placing her ancestry in the Pacific Islands that were Astaad’s domain, her beauty so refined as to be unearthly. An old vampire, her exquisiteness the result of centuries of subtle change.

Smiling, she said, “I’m Elena.”

The other woman’s eyes widened. “I am Mele,” she responded after a quick glance at Astaad that put Elena’s instincts on alert—except that Mele didn’t look again in the archangel’s direction.

They ended up speaking for over a half hour, discovering common ground between Mele’s long-term study of vampiric soldiers and Elena’s experience as a hunter. At one point, Elena confessed, “I feel like an idiot.”

“If I have said a—”

“No.” Elena shook her head. “I had this mental image of a ‘concubine’”—she’d asked Raphael if it was polite to use that term, been told yes—“and you just smashed it to smithereens.” The other woman was a scholar who spoke languages Elena hadn’t even known existed until Mele mentioned them.

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