Home > Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(12)

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter #5)(12)
Author: Nalini Singh

Jason displayed no distaste at the sight of Eris’s mutilated body, his breathing even as he examined the remains of her “father.”

“Did I have the chance to strangle you in your crib, I would have done so in a heartbeat. Without you, she would’ve forgiven my transgression long ago.” A wineglass smashing onto marble. “Be careful when you sleep, girl. I have friends who may yet snap your neck for me.”

It was her most vivid memory of the man who had contributed his seed to her creation.

* * *

Ignoring the flies that buzzed around what remained of a man who had once been the toast of courts from ancient Greece to the Forbidden City, Jason leaned in close, making certain of his first impression that Eris’s heart had been removed, as had all his other internal organs. He could see a pile of indeterminate decomposing material to the right, guessed they might be the hacked-up remains of the organs.

That his head was still attached to his neck was a surprise—though Eris was universally considered too weak to have been consort to an archangel, that weakness had stemmed from his character, rather than the raw power contained within his body. He was more than old and strong enough to have risen by now were his brain intact.

Jason examined what appeared to be dried blood under one of Eris’s nostrils, the color near black, the substance clotted rather than crystalline. “Was a long needle found with the body?”

Mahiya shook her head, her expression devoid of the sorrow and distress he might’ve expected from a woman standing by the body of her dead father. “Nothing has been taken from this palace since Neha discovered his body.” A pause. “Do you wish me to search this room?”

“Yes.” Bending as she began to do so, he put his hand under Eris’s head and lifted, knocked on the bone with the knuckles of his free hand.

Mahiya paused in her search. “It sounds . . . hollow.”

“His brain’s been removed.”

Sari held neatly off the blood-matted carpet, the princess returned needleless from her search and spoke words he most assuredly had not expected to hear from a woman dressed in softest pink, her every move speaking of elegant femininity. “How?” Determined curiosity leaked through her facade of distant politeness. “His head is unmolested.”

Jason’s interest in Mahiya grew deeper, more intense. “A hooked needle thrust into the brain through the nose,” he said, describing a method used by the people of ancient Egypt as part of the mummification process. “That needle is then moved around until the brain is in a state that it can be extracted via the same route.”

From the thick area of dried material directly below the head, the brain might well have been turned into soup, allowed to drip out of Eris’s nose before he was turned back over and posed as he was now.

A small silence, and he wondered if he’d misjudged the internal strength of this princess raised in the hothouse that was the fort, but who watched him out of those eyes bright as a cat’s with a steely intelligence that fit neither her quiet acquiescence to Neha’s demands, nor the way she’d followed his own commands without argument.

Then she spoke, and he knew his instincts hadn’t steered him wrong. Mahiya might not be an opponent strong enough to concern him, but she was no pampered princess he could ignore. “So”—a considering look—“whoever did this came well prepared, not only with the blade he or she used to carve up Eris, but with the hook, perhaps other tools as well.”

“Including a garrote.” Jason pointed out the mark on Eris’s necrotic flesh, his sun golden skin now a home for creatures who fed on death. “It may have been the first attack.” Enough to disable the angel, allow time for the murderer to inflict more debilitating injuries. Because though humans termed angelkind immortal, there was perhaps one true immortal in the world—Lijuan. The rest of them were simply harder to kill.

“He was tied up,” Mahiya said, indicating the still-visible marks on Eris’s wrists, the decay of his flesh having exposed bone. “For the skin to decay that fast—”

“Means the bindings had to have cut through to bone.” It also explained the splatters of crystalline blood below where his wrists hung. “He was powerful enough to have snapped ordinary rope—this must’ve been infused with metal of some kind.”

“Or maybe the killer used extra garrotes as ties?” Mahiya offered, a sudden hesitancy to her.

Jason wondered exactly what kind of life the princess had lived that she’d made the same dark intuitive leap he had even as he finished speaking. “Yes. Could Neha have untied him, gotten rid of the evidence?” The act of a woman who did not want her lover found bound and helpless.

But Mahiya shook her head. “No, she only entered the room half a minute ahead of me.”

Which meant Eris had been left this way on purpose—displayed like a trophy, or a warning. But who would dare play such a game with Neha? Another of the Cadre? It was something to consider. As was the fact that Eris hadn’t simply been killed; he’d been tortured. Again, his suffering could’ve been intended to hurt Neha, but there seemed something deeply personal about this.

Everything was close contact, from the strangulation to the way the man’s other organs had been removed—by a small blunt knife, if Jason was reading the marks on the bone correctly. He was gut-certain the brain had been left for last, so there was a high chance Eris had remained conscious as the killer hacked out pieces of his body. He’d have drowned in pain and terror . . . which explained the raw flesh around his mouth, the cuts on his tongue and lips.

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