Home > This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(15)

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(15)
Author: Jeaniene Frost

I shifted impatiently. I couldn't spend time with my uncle until this situation with Apollyon was resolved, and Don didn't have a lot of time left. Then there was my mother's bright idea of painting a bull's-eye on her ass by joining the team. Family. Villains had nothing on the stress my relatives could cause me.

Speaking of that, where was the ghoul who always accompanied Marie's guests into the cemetery to see her? He should've been here ten minutes ago.

As if I'd summoned him, a familiar dark-skinned ghoul rounded the bend on the opposite corner, looking almost taken aback to see us waiting by the gates.

"Jacques," Bones greeted the ghoul, casting a pointed look at the clock on his cell phone.

"Didn't interrupt you from having a bit of fun, did we?" The ghoul's face cleared by the time Bones finished speaking, until it was smooth as polished obsidian instead of registering surprise.

"Majestic did not know you'd returned to the city. She assumed your absence meant you'd canceled your meeting tonight."

The barest smile flittered across Bones's mouth. "We only just arrived a few minutes ago."

Yep, and not by plane, boat, train, or automobile, either. Not after the now-headless ghoul told us his cronies were watching all those venues. Bones flew us in under his own power about ten minutes ago, landing on the roof of Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square before we hopped down and walked the couple blocks to the cemetery. He hadn't wanted me to try my wings again for this jaunt into the city. Something about conserving my energy for later. Under other circumstances, I'd think he meant that in a naughty way, but I knew he was referring to possibly fighting for our lives later, if things went awry. I knew which activity I'd rather be conserving my energy for, if I had control over my own life, but that hadn't happened much lately.

"I will notify Majestic," Jacques said, staying on the other side of the street. He pulled out his cell, speaking quietly into it, his words indiscernible amidst the other noises of the nearby French Quarter. Jazz Fest was getting under way in the next day or so, but from the swell of extra tourists, the city was starting the party early.

"Why'd he even come by, if he didn't think we'd be here?" I whispered to Bones.

"Because Marie would make sure nothing was left to chance" was his equally soft reply.

That sounded like the infamous voodoo queen. She might look like a cross between Mrs.

Butterworth and Angela Bassett, emitting matronliness or a take-no-prisoners attitude depending on her mood, but Marie Laveau was nothing if not meticulous. Figures I'd be seeing her again under the same circumstances that we'd first met - me trying to find out if she'd back an a**hole in his claims against me. This time, however, the stakes were much higher than determining who I was married to according to vampire law. I'd ended up settling that matter rather decisively by blowing my ex-husband's head off. If only I could do the same to Apollyon soon, I'd consider meetings with Marie as a good-luck omen.

"She will be here in twenty minutes," Jacques announced, coming back over to us. Bones let out a snort.

"I should think so, after the trouble we've gone through to speak with her." Jacques didn't reply to that. He hadn't been much of a talker the last time I'd met him, either. After waiting the stated amount of time, Jacques opened the gates to the cemetery and I went inside, knowing where we were headed but willing to let him take the lead. The ghoul started to close the gate after me, but Bones's hand shot out to stop him.

"I'm going with her."

He frowned. "Majestic said she will meet with the Reaper first and you afterward." Bones smiled, an easy stretch of his mouth that made his features even more startlingly gorgeous, but his voice didn't match his playboy good looks.

"Perhaps you misheard me. I'm going with her, and if you think to stop me, I'll soon be decorating one of these gate spikes with your head."

Jacques was at least twice the width of Bones and just as tall, so to an onlooker, if they fought, it would be a no-brainer who'd win. But the ghoul couldn't match the power seething off Bones as he dropped his shields. It poured from him and fanned out to encompass the cemetery, making the sentient ghosts give him a more interested glance as it brushed across them.

"This way," Jacques said at last, turning his back on us.

We picked our way around the crumbling crypts and refurbished tombs as Jacques led us toward Marie Laveau's vault. I knew this cemetery was a popular tourist attraction, but I didn't see myself coming here just for fun. The air was thicker with all the residual energy from the ghosts, making me feel like I walked through invisible cobwebs with every step. The cemetery might not be large, but because of New Orleans's history of extremely high mortality rates in comparison to their burial space, each crypt we passed housed the remains of dozens if not hundreds of residents - some of whom watched us as we passed by.

It also had a different vibe than the time capsule feel of the French Quarter. There, in the backdrop of streets suited for horses instead of cars and gas lanterns illuminating the sidewalks, it somehow didn't seem odd to see a transparent person adorned in clothes from a different century mingling among the living residents. Here, however, melancholy hung in almost palpable waves, making me imagine that every crypt I passed or foot of ground I trod upon sighed in regret over a life never to be experienced again.

Jacques stopped by the white oblong crypt bearing Marie Laveau's name, date of supposed death, and a faint inscription in French that I couldn't read. He said something in what sounded like Creole, and at the base where several offerings were left to the voodoo queen, a grating noise emanated. Then a few of the old, decrepit-looking stones slid smoothly back to reveal a dark hole within.

Marie might be calculating and meticulous, but she also had a sense of humor, making people travel under her crypt for meetings with her.

Jacques jumped down into the hole without hesitation. Bones flashed a look at me before doing the same. I followed after a second or two, giving him time to move so I didn't land on him, and squished down into an inch of brackish-smelling water. Impressive mechanical hideaway, yes, but nothing stayed totally dry underground in New Orleans, and this area was flooded most of the time. Marie must have a better pump system down here than the Army Corps of Engineers.

Above us, the slabs creaked again as they closed, plunging the tunnel into what would have been complete blackness to anyone without supernatural vision. Bones and I both had that, so I wasn't worried about something jumping out at us unseen. We also both had boots on, so disgusting things squishing through my toes as we followed down the tunnel wasn't a concern as well. Still, when I glanced at the tight walls around us, I was unable to suppress a shiver. I'd seen what Marie had installed for a booby trap in this tunnel, and let's just say it involved enough blades to turn anyone trespassing into red-splattered coleslaw.

After about forty yards, Jacques opened the metal door at the end that revealed a narrow flight of stairs. Again Bones went up first, me following behind him. At the top of the stairs was a small, windowless room that might be located in a nearby home, or we might possibly be inside one of the larger national crypts in the cemetery. I had no idea, and I was sure that was how Marie wanted it.

"Majestic," Bones greeted the woman seated on a plush recliner chair, nodding his head respectfully.

But when I came out from behind him and saw Marie more clearly, my polite hello vanished under a burst of laughter. On the floor right next to her smart little heels was a pale container of plastic-wrapped poultry, and I didn't have to look at the label to guess what kind.

"A headless chicken," I said once I'd gotten my laughter under control. "Very cool." Bones arched a brow at me, not knowing that upon first meeting the ghoul queen of New Orleans, I'd commented that I was sure she'd be holding a headless chicken considering her fearsome voodoo reputation. Apparently, she'd remembered that, yet another example of the sly humor lurking underneath her whole Queen of the Damned demeanor.

"It was the best I could do under short notice," Marie replied with an elegant shrug. Her voice was like acoustical caramel, that Southern Creole accent sweetening each word. Her shawl shifted as she sat up, inky curls brushing her shoulders with the movement. Then her eyes narrowed as she fixed her gaze on Bones.

"Did Jacques not relay my instructions for you to wait while I met with Cat alone first?" Bones didn't lose any of his easy posture, but I felt tension that wasn't my own brush over my emotions.

"I'm certain you heard of the incident at the Ritz yesterday, and I'm also certain you know the attack was aimed at her. So you'll forgive me, Majestic, if I'm overprotective of my wife's safety at present."

"Yes, I heard." Not a hint of emotion flickered across her features. "I can assume the bodies recovered from the hotel were those of your attackers?"

"All but one," Bones replied. "We took him with us when we left." Now we had Marie's full attention. She leaned forward, her dark gaze intense. "Tell me you brought this person with you."

"Sorry, he's dead now," Bones stated impassively.

"You killed him?" Marie didn't look pleased, and I didn't think it was because she'd wished a long, happy life on the other ghoul. In fact, if the man were still alive, he might be grateful that Vlad spared him whatever Marie had in store. From her reputation, she was hell on anyone who violated her safe-passage rules.

"Vlad did," I said before Bones could answer. "He didn't know all the details." Partly true, anyway.

"I'll speak with him about that later," Marie murmured, almost to herself.

I gave the single empty chair across from her a glance. "You mind?" She waved a hand. "Please."

"Bones?" I inquired, assuming I'd just sit on his lap.

"I'll stand, Kitten."

I settled myself in the chair. So far, things were going better than I expected. Marie hadn't pitched a fit about Bones being here or the ghoul being dead. Maybe she thought Apollyon was as much of a threat as we did.

"You may remain, but you will stay silent while I speak with Cat, or I will remove you," Marie said to Bones in a tone that dared him to argue.

My hopes plummeted with that single sentence. Bones folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the wall, looking for all the world like he was completely relaxed. I couldn't feel his emotions - he'd locked them down tight upon entering the tunnel - but I bet his little half smile concealed a slew of uncharitable thoughts toward Marie. I couldn't help but admire his blase performance. I could never fake nonchalance that well when I was pissed.

I cleared my throat in the sudden uneasy silence. "So . . . how 'bout them Saints, huh?" Marie's sharp gaze didn't leave mine. "The last time I saw you, you were still a half-breed. Tell me, Cat, how do you find being a full vampire?"

"It's great," I said, knowing she had something up her sleeve with this, but pretending it was a casual question. "I haven't missed getting my period even once, and hey, no more counting calories. What's not to love, right?"

She smiled at me, revealing pretty white teeth that contrasted nicely with her matte red lipstick. "You forgot to mention your ability to kill your first husband with a fireball." My answering smile froze on my face. I'd expected us to talk about Apollyon, not Gregor. He'd been the vampire whose blood was combined with a ghoul's heart to raise Marie from the dead almost a hundred and fifty years ago, but Marie had wanted him dead, too, so I didn't anticipate recriminations from her for killing him.

Marie's a valuable ally, don't lose your temper and give her an excuse to side with Apollyon, I reminded myself. Look at Bones. He almost seems bored even though he's got to be as ticked as you over Marie bringing up Gregor.

"Because he cheated in his duel with Bones, the Guardian Council of Vampires cleared me of any wrongdoing," I said, proud that my voice was very calm.

Marie leaned back in her chair, idly stroking the fabric. Part of me wondered where the secret door was in this room. That chair wasn't a permanent fixture or it would be mildewed from the damp air, not to mention I didn't believe Marie would leave herself without an alternate means of escape.

"Cheating, that doesn't surprise me," she commented. "Gregor's arrogance always was his Achilles' heel. Like bringing you to Paris when you were sixteen. I told him to come here instead. That his hometown would be the first place anyone would look for him, should his actions be discovered, but he didn't listen."

Everything in me froze. I didn't dare glance at Bones again. The flash of rage that skipped across my subconscious before he recloaked his emotions told me he was thisclose to losing it at this revelation.

"So." I couldn't keep the edge from my tone if my life depended on it. "Gregor told you about his kidnapping plans for me back then?"

She continued to stroke her armrest, as though the tension in the room hadn't become thick enough to cut. "Gregor told me many things. He trusted my loyalty to him as my only living sire. I don't betray those I've sworn loyalty to. This shouldn't surprise you. I told you last year that if Gregor's claims of marriage to you were proved, I'd back his side."

"You also told me a neat story about how you murdered your husband when he pushed you too far," I replied sharply. "Well, I'd say tricking me into marrying him as a teenager, murdering my friend, forcibly changing my mother into a vampire, and trying to murder Bones by cheating in their duel all fell under the 'too far' category for me. Too bad for Gregor the vision he had of me when I was sixteen didn't show the part about me using all those neat powers he wanted to control to kill him."

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