Angels' Dance (Guild Hunter 0.4)

by Nalini Singh

FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO

She had seen empires rise and kingdoms fall, queens come and go, archangels clash in battle and drown the world in rivers of blood. She had recorded the archangel Raphael’s birth; recorded, too, the disappearance of his mother, Caliane; the execution of his father, Nadiel.

She had watched her students take flight century after century, heading out into the world with dreams in their hearts and tentative smiles on their faces. She had read the letters they sent back from far-off lands of primeval forests and drenching rains, endless deserts and unforgiving winds. And she had celebrated the rare, joyful times when they themselves became parents to a little one.

All this she had experienced from the craggy peaks and glimmering beauty of the Refuge, an earthbound angel, her wings never meant for flight. The first thousand years after her becoming had been hard, the second heartbreaking. Now that more than half of the third had passed, and with the specter of another devastating war a stealthy shadow on the horizon, she felt only a bleak acceptance.

“Jessamy! Jessamy!”

Turning from the edge of the cliff where she stood, looking up at a crystalline blue sky she would never touch, she crossed the rocky earth with quick steps to meet the child hurtling toward her, the girl’s wings dragging along the ground. “Careful, Saraia.” She knelt and captured that small, sturdy body dominated by wings of pure chocolate brown streaked with filaments of bronze that glittered under the piercing mountain sunlight.

The bronze echoed the colors of both Saraia’s skin and her hair—messy and tangled around her face, the shiny ribbon her mother had undoubtedly tied with care this morning straggling over her shoulder.

Unfazed, the little girl threw her arms around Jessamy’s neck with loving exuberance. “You have to come!” Flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes, the scent of sticky sweets and shimmering excitement. “You have to see!”

Jessamy had been a teacher of angelic young for more than two thousand years, yet a child’s smile had the power to cascade light, joyful and luminous, over her senses still. Shaking off the melancholy that had cast a heavy weight over her as she watched a flight of angels dive and soar across the jagged, echoing gorge that ran through the center of the Refuge, she pressed a kiss to the plump softness of Saraia’s cheek and rose, taking the child with her.

Saraia’s wings hung over her arm, silken and warm, but the weight was one Jessamy could bear with ease. It was only her left wing that was twisted and useless, an alien ugliness in a place of power and dangerous beauty. The rest of her was as strong as any angel. “What must I see, sweetling?”

Saraia directed her toward the archangel Raphael’s section of the Refuge, and to the area that held the weapons salle and training ground. Jessamy frowned. “Saraia, you know you’re not permitted there.” The risks could be lethal for a baby angel uncertain of her wings and balance.

“Illium said we could stay this one time.” The explanation came out in a rush. “I asked, promise.”

Knowing Illium would never endanger the children, she continued on.

However, it wasn’t the young angel’s distinctive wings of a startling, unbroken blue that she saw when she turned the corner toward the windowless wooden salle and the practice ground of beaten earth in front of it, but the dark gray wings of an angel with a far more muscular body, his stunning hair a red so pure, it was a flame, his hand holding a massive broadsword. Steel clanged as that sword slammed up against one held by Dmitri, Raphael’s second.

Jessamy’s arm tightened instinctively around Saraia’s body.

Dmitri might not be an angel, but the vampire was powerful, the most trusted of Raphael’s advisors. And the most lethal. But this big angel with his wings reminiscent of some great bird of prey’s, white striations visible in the gray when he snapped them out for balance, was taking the vampire on in a brutal session of combat. Feet bare and chests uncovered, their skin gleamed with sweat.

Dmitri had on flowing black pants, while the angel was wearing a garment that reminded her of that worn by the archangel Titus’s men, the rough black fabric around his hips held up by a thick leather knife-belt in the same color, and reaching three-quarters of the way down his thighs. It was only when he moved that she realized the garment was heavy, as if sheets of beaten metal lay behind the first layer of fabric… part of a warrior’s armor, she realized. He’d simply chosen not to wear the metallic breastplate or the arm or leg guards.

It was impossible not to look at those legs, not to watch the flex and release of raw muscle beneath gilded skin covered by a scattering of hair that glinted in the sun. Then he shifted again and her eyes flew to the magnificent breadth of his shoulders, the primal power of him a fiercely controlled thing that birthed a wild, unexpected fascination in her.

“Who,” she said to Illium, when the golden-eyed angel reached over to take Saraia and perch the girl up beside her friends on the fence in front of him, “is that, and why is he antagonizing Dmitri?” Even as she spoke, she didn’t take her eyes off the angel, who looked as if he’d be right at home in the backroom of some rough vampire tavern.

Illium’s wing brushed her own as he leaned his arms on the fence. It was an overly familiar act, but Jessamy didn’t reprimand him. There was no subtext to his touch, nothing but an affection rooted in childhood—to him she would always be the teacher who had threatened to tie him to a chair if he didn’t stop fidgeting and read his history books.

“Galen,” he said, “is one of Titus’s people.”

“That’s no surprise.” Titus was a warrior archangel, never more at home than in the midst of the blood and fury of battle—this Galen, too, was made for combat, all rippling muscle and brute strength.

Strength that was in hard evidence as he blocked a blow and kicked out at the same time to connect with Dmitri’s knee. The vampire grunted, swore, and just barely avoided a strike with the flat of Galen’s blade that would’ve no doubt caused a severe black bruise. So, they weren’t actually attempting to kill each other.

Sliding one arm around Saraia to steady her when the little girl clapped, Illium continued. “He wants a transfer to Raphael’s territory.”

Now she understood. Raphael had become an archangel only a hundred years ago. His court, such as it was, was a nascent, still-forming unit. Which meant it had room to accept and integrate the strong who might find themselves bored or underutilized in the older courts. “Raphael isn’t concerned about him being a spy?” The archangels who ruled the world, forming the Cadre of Ten, were ruthless in the pursuit of their interests.

“Even if Raphael didn’t have his own spies to vouch for Galen,” Illium said with a grin that was so infectious, she’d had the most impossible time maintaining a stern face when she’d disciplined him as a child, “he’s not the kind to lie. I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word ‘subtle.’”

A ringing blow with the flat of the blade against Dmitri’s cheek, a kick to the gut, and suddenly, Galen had the advantage, the tip of his broadsword touching Dmitri’s jugular as the vampire’s chest heaved where he lay on his back on the ground. “Yield.”

Dmitri’s unblinking gaze locked with Galen’s, the merciless predator within the sophisticated vampire very much at the forefront. But his voice, when it came, was a lazy purr languid as a summer afternoon. “You’re lucky the babies are watching.”

Galen didn’t so much as flinch, his focus absolute.

Dmitri’s lips curved. “Bloody barbarian. I yield.”

Stepping back, Galen waited until Dmitri was on his feet to raise his sword and give a curt bow of his head in a symbol of respect between two warriors. Dmitri’s response was unexpectedly solemn. Jessamy had the feeling this new angel, with his battering ram of a body and large, powerful wings, had passed some kind of test.

“I think you broke my ribs.” Dmitri rubbed at the mottled bruise forming on the dark honey of his skin.

“They’ll heal.” Galen’s eyes lifted, scanned the audience… locked on Jessamy.

Pale green, almost translucent, those eyes sucked the air right out of her; they watched her with such unwavering intent. The force of his leashed power was staggering, but it was his lips that had her hands turning white-knuckled. The only point of softness in a harsh face that was all angles, those lips caused thoughts, shocking and raw, to punch into her mind. She didn’t breathe until Dmitri said something and Galen turned away, the silken red of his shaggy hair lifting in the wind.

Galen watched the tall, almost painfully thin woman walk away with her hands held by two of the smallest of their erstwhile audience, other children running around her, their wings brushing the earth when they forgot to pull them up. He’d never seen any angel who appeared as fragile. A single mistake with one of his big fists and he’d break her into a hundred pieces.

Scowling at the thought, he turned away from the sight of her retreating back, one of her wings appearing oddly distorted at this distance, and walked with Dmitri into the echoing emptiness of the salle, where they cleaned and stored their blades. Illium entered not long afterward, his wings a faultless blue Galen had seen on no other. The angel was young, only a hundred and fifteen to Galen’s two hundred and seventy-five, and appeared a beautiful piece of frivolity, the kind of male who existed in the courts for his decorative value alone.

“You owe me the gold dagger you brought back from Neha’s territory.” Illium’s words were directed at Dmitri, a gleam in his eye.

Eyebrows lowering, Dmitri muttered, “You’ll get it.” A glance up at Galen. “He wagered you’d take me down.”

Galen wondered if the younger angel had bet on an unknown commodity for no reason but that he enjoyed baiting Dmitri, or if he had knowledge Galen didn’t realize. No, he thought almost at once, Illium couldn’t be Raphael’s spymaster—quite aside from the fact that he was unlikely to have built up the necessary network of contacts given his age, he seemed too flamboyant for such a task.

“You were a good opponent,” he said to Dmitri, making a silent note to watch Illium with more care—men like Dmitri didn’t associate with pretty, useless butterflies. “I can usually intimidate most with brute strength alone.” Not only had Dmitri failed to be intimidated; he’d fought with practiced grace.

The vampire inclined his head, dark eyes appearing lazy—if you didn’t look beneath the surface. “A compliment indeed from the weapons-master Titus is furious to be losing.”

Galen shook his head. “He has a weapons-master—and Orios has earned his position.” There’d been no room for Galen, except as Orios’s subordinate. Galen had felt no discontent in occupying that position when he first reached maturity, aware Orios was the better fighter and leader. But things had changed as Galen grew older and more experienced, his power increasing at a rate that far outstripped his peers. “Orios was happy when I told him of my desire to leave Titus’s court.”

“The men are becoming confused about who to look to for leadership,” the weapons-master had said, his near-black skin gleaming in the African sunlight. “It would have cost me should we have been forced to meet in combat to decide matters.” A big hand squeezing Galen’s shoulder. “I hope we never go against each other in battle. Of all my students, you are the one who has flown the highest.”

Galen had made certain Orios knew of his own respect toward the man who had never withheld knowledge from his student, no matter that Galen threatened his position, and they had parted on good terms. “Titus is simply posturing in an attempt to gain concessions from Raphael.”

“A fool’s game,” Illium said, running his hand along the edge of the blade Dmitri had been using. “Raphael is no less an archangel for being the newest member of the Cadre.” Hissing out a breath after slicing a line on his palm, he closed his fingers into a fist. “Why didn’t you set your sights on Charisemnon’s or Uram’s courts? They’re both older and stronger, with far more men at their command.”

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