“Oomph, Misha.” Catching his son’s excited form as the little boy came running down the rough country drive, he settled Misha on his arm—browned, scarred, and muscled from working the fields—and said, “What has your mama been feeding you?”
A giggling laugh, his son secure in the knowledge that his father wouldn’t drop him. “Did you bring me a sweet?”
“I was hungry on the way home,” he teased. “I’m afraid I ate it.”
Misha’s brow furrowed, his dark eyes intent . . . and then he laughed again, a huge and deep laugh for such a small boy. “Papa!” He began to look in his father’s shirt pocket, gave a triumphant cry when he found the small wrapped package.
Smiling at his son’s joy, he looked up and saw her in the doorway. His wife. With their new daughter in her arms. His heart twisted into a knot that was almost painful. Sometimes, he thought he should be ashamed to love his wife and children so much, until the days when he went away to the markets were a rare anguish . . . but he could not bring himself to believe it.
When other men complained about their wives, he simply smiled and thought of the woman with the slanting eyes and wide mouth who waited for him. Ingrede hated her mouth, wanted a little bow like the wife of their neighbor across the plain, but he loved her smile, loved the crooked tooth in the front, and the way she began to lisp when he talked her into too much of the white fire brewed by the same neighbor’s son.
Now, setting down his bag on the doorstep, he cupped her cheek with his hand. “Hello, wife.”
“I missed you, Dmitri.”
Crouching on the concrete pier lit only by the dull yellow glow of a flickering streetlight several feet away, Dmitri tilted the severed head toward him with a grip in the dead male’s damp hair, not bothering with gloves. Elena, he thought, would not have approved of the breach in proper forensic protocol, but the hunter was currently in Japan and wouldn’t return to the city for three more days.
The victim’s head had been separated from his—as yet undiscovered—body with hacking slices, the weapon possibly some kind of a small ax. Not a neat job, but it had gotten things done. The skin, which appeared to have been either pink or white in life, was bloated and soft with water, but the river hadn’t had time to degrade it into slime.
“I was hoping,” he said to the blue-winged angel who stood on the other side of the grisly find, “for a quiet few weeks.” The reappearance of the archangel Caliane, thought dead for over a millennium, had rocked both the angels and the vampire population. The mortals, too, felt something, but they had no true knowledge of the staggering change in the power structure of the Cadre of Ten, the archangels who ruled the world.
Because Caliane wasn’t simply old, she was an Ancient.
“Quiet would bore you,” Illium said, playing a thin silver blade in and around his fingers. Having preceded Raphael and Elena home from Japan the previous day, he looked none the worse for wear after having been kidnapped and caught in the middle of a battle between archangels.
Dmitri felt his lips curve. Unfortunately, the angel with his wings of silver-kissed blue and eyes of gold was right. Dmitri hadn’t yet succumbed to the ennui that affected so many of the immortals for the simple reason that he never stayed still. Of course, some would say he was leaning too far in the other direction—in the company of those who lived only for the piercing pleasure of blood and pain, every other sensation having grown dull.
The thought should’ve concerned him. That it didn’t . . . that concerned him. But his inexorable descent into the seductive ruby red darkness had nothing to do with the current situation. “He has nascent fangs.” The small, immature canines appeared almost translucent. “But he’s not one of ours.” Dmitri knew the name and face of every vampire living in and around New York. “Neither does he fit the description of any of the Made who’ve gone missing across the wider territory.”
Illium balanced his blade on a fingertip, the yellow glow from the streetlight reflecting off it in an unexpected spark of color before he began to play it through his fingers once more. “He could’ve belonged to someone else, tried to escape his Contract, run into trouble.”
Since there were always idiots who tried to get out of their side of the deal—a hundred years of service to the angels in exchange for the gift of near-immortality—that was highly possible. Though why a vampire would come to New York when it was home to an archangel, and a powerful Guild of hunters dedicated to retrieving those who decided to run, wasn’t as explicable.
“Family ties,” Illium said, as if he’d read Dmitri’s thoughts. “Vampires that young tend to stay connected to their mortal roots.”
Dmitri thought of the broken burned-out shell of a house he’d visited day after day, night after night, until so many years had passed that there was no longer any sign of the small cottage that once stood there. Only the land, carpeted with wildflowers, remained, and it was Dmitri’s, would always be Dmitri’s. “We’ve been working together too long, Bluebell,” he said, his mind on that windswept plain where he had once danced a laughing woman in his arms while a bright-eyed boy clapped his hands.
“I keep saying that,” Illium responded, “but Raphael refuses to get rid of you.” That silver blade flashed faster and faster. “What do you think of the ink?”
Rising to his feet, Dmitri tilted the head to the other side. The tattoo high on the dead male’s left cheekbone—black marks reminiscent of letters in the Cyrillic alphabet intertwined with three scrolling sentences in what might’ve been Aramaic—was both intricate and unusual . . . and yet something about it nagged at Dmitri.
He’d seen it before, or something similar, but he’d been alive almost a millennium and the memory was less than a shadow. “It should make him easier to identify.” Light glinted off those small fangs. And he realized what he’d overlooked at first glance. “If his fangs aren’t mature, he should’ve still been in isolation.”
The first few months after their Making, vampires were scrabbling creatures, little more than animals, as the toxin that turned mortal to vampire worked its way into their cells. Many chose to navigate the conversion in an induced coma, except for certain necessary periods of wakefulness. Dmitri had spent the months after his violent Making locked in iron chains on a cold stone floor. He remembered little of that time beyond the ice of the stone below his na**d body; the rigid grasp of the manacles around his neck, his wrists, his ankles.
But what came after he woke as an almost-immortal . . . that he would never forget, not even if he lived to be ten thousand years old.
Wild blue across his vision, the flickering yellow light turning the glimmering threads of silver in Illium’s feathers to pewter. “The Guild has good databases,” the angel said, closing his wings and slipping away the knife at the same time.
“Yes.” Dmitri had ways to access those databases without Guild cooperation, had done so on many a previous occasion, but it might be a good move to loop the hunters into this case so they knew to alert him to any similar incidents—because the instincts honed by close to a thousand years of bloody survival said he needed to handle this himself, not pass it on to the Guild. “Where’s the bag?”
When Illium produced a black garbage bag, he raised an eyebrow. “I’d have thought Elena would have taught you something by now.”
The angel gave him an unexpectedly solemn look out of those golden eyes tipped with black lashes dipped in blue, an echo of his hair. “Do you think I will fall again, Dmitri?” Memory in his voice, whispers of pain. “Lose my wings?”
Dmitri was unsurprised at the question. Illium wasn’t one of Raphael’s Seven, the angels and vampires who had pledged their lives to the archangel, because he was anything less than piercingly intelligent. Now he met that extraordinary gaze. “You look at her in a way no man should look at a woman who belongs to an archangel.” Illium had a weakness for mortals, and while Elena was now an angel, she had a vulnerable human heart, was mortal in her thinking.
The blue-winged angel said nothing as Dmitri put the head inside the plastic bag. There was no other evidence here for anyone to collect—the head had floated up on the Hudson, been spotted and retrieved by Illium as he flew over the river a mere fraction of a moment before the last rays of the sun were consumed by the night, could’ve come from anywhere.
“She compels me,” the other male admitted at last. “But she is the Sire’s, and I would guard that relationship with my life.” Quiet, passionate, absolute.
Dmitri could have let it go at that, but there was more at stake here than a dangerous attraction. “It’s not betrayal I’m worried about. It’s you.”
Illium’s hair swept across his face in a capricious wind before settling. “In Amanat,” he said, speaking of the lost city newly arisen, “Elena said she needed me to protect her against you.” A faint smile. “It was a tease, but it does her no harm to have someone in her corner.”
Dmitri didn’t dispute Illium’s implied assessment of his own feelings toward the Guild Hunter who was Raphael’s chosen consort. “You’re convinced she saved his life when Lijuan attacked?” Illium’s report seemed implausible, and yet Raphael himself had confirmed some of it when the archangel contacted Dmitri soon after Caliane’s reawakening.
“Only Raphael knows the truth, but I know what I saw,” Illium said, his face strained with remembrance. “He was dying, and then he lived—and the flame in his hands was colored in shades of dawn.”
The same soft colors that lingered on part of Elena’s wings.
Dmitri remained leery. Elena was the weakest of angels, her mortal heart nowhere near strong enough to survive the world of the archangels. “She’s become a permanent chink in his armor.” As Raphael’s second, Dmitri was never going to accept that, though he had vowed to protect her and would carry that vow through to the very end, no matter what the cost.
“Have you never had a woman create such a chink in your armor?” One of Illium’s feathers fell toward the ground but was whipped away and over the water before it could touch the unforgiving concrete. “In all the years I’ve known you, never have you had a lover on whom you placed a true claim.”
“I will watch the roads for you, Dmitri.”
Illium was just over five hundred years old to Dmitri’s near thousand. He didn’t know anything of what had gone on before—Raphael alone knew. “No,” Dmitri said and it was a lie he told with centuries of expertise. “Weakness gets a man killed.”
Illium blew out a breath as they reached the flame red Ferrari the angel coveted but couldn’t drive because of his wings, and said, “Do not lose your humanity, Dmitri. It’s what makes you.” He flared out those wings of impossible beauty and rose into the air with a grace and strength that foretold what he might one day become.
Watching the angel fly up into the star-studded skies above a Manhattan stretching awake for the dark beat of night, until he was a sweeping shadow against the glittering black, Dmitri’s lips curved into a grim smile. “I lost my humanity a long time ago, Bluebell.”
Honor was in the subterranean depths of Guild Academy’s main building, peering at an illuminated fourteenth-century text to do with one Amadeus Berg, legendary hunter and explorer, when her cell phone rang. Jumping up at the abrupt burst of sound, she grabbed it from where she’d placed it on the table beside her keys. “Sara?” she said, having recognized the number flashing on the screen as that of the Guild Director’s personal cell phone.
“Honor.” Crisp. No nonsense. Sara. “Where are you?”