Bound by flames, p.16
Bound by Flames, p.16Part #3 of Night Prince series by Jeaniene Frost
On the heels of my fear, determination filled me. I wouldn’t let that happen. I’d stop him before he crossed the point of being an avenging husband, and turned into something else. If he loved me so much that I could be the cause of his downfall, I could also be the one to prevent it—or bring him back from it.
I was so consumed by this thought that I didn’t ask where we were going until Vlad stopped in front of the iron gates of a cemetery labeled St. Louis Number One. I looked around, seeing ghosts hovering like pale, creepy shadows in and around the many crypts in the cemetery. I shivered. Was it me, or did it feel like the temperature had dropped several degrees since we reached the foreboding-looking cemetery?
“Why are we here?” I asked, also wondering why we were alone. Vlad must have brought his guards with him or he wouldn’t have whispered his bombshell when we were alone in our room.
“To see an acquaintance,” he replied. At my doubtful look, he smiled sardonically. “Her tomb is where Marie Laveau insists on meeting all of her visitors. And they call me a show hound.”
The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then the appearance of a large African-American man on the other side of the gates stopped me in mid-ponder.
“Vlad Tepesh,” he said, inclining his head in a respectful way. “You are expected and may enter. You,” and his gaze barely passed over me, “are not expected and must stay here.”
I stiffened, but Vlad only smiled. “My wife goes where I go, as both our laws affirm.”
Both our laws. From his lack of heartbeat, I already knew that the large man wasn’t human. Vlad’s statement narrowed the possibilities down to one: ghoul. I shifted uneasily. The last ghouls I’d met had tried to eat me, and not in the romantic way.
“A mortal ceremony means nothing,” the ghoul began, but Vlad pulled out a cell phone and tapped the screen before handing it over. By my blood, I heard a replay of his voice say, I declare that you, Leila Dalton Dracul, are my wife . . .
I hadn’t noticed anyone taping the ceremony last night, but someone must’ve. The ghoul’s brows went up as he watched. Then he handed the phone back, giving me his first full look.
“Congratulations, Leila Dracul,” he said formally.
Despite everything that had happened the past several weeks—or perhaps because of it—I couldn’t resist.
“Oh, I prefer Leila Dracula,” I said, grinning as I felt Vlad’s foot trod down on mine.
“You’ll pay for that,” he muttered, then fixed the ghoul with a harder stare. “As I said, my wife comes with me.”
“I will relay this information and return with Majestic’s decision,” the ghoul stated, melting away into the cemetery.
“Why didn’t you tell this Marie person that I was coming with you?” I whispered once I couldn’t see the ghoul anymore.
Vlad glanced down at me. “Many reasons.”
I didn’t know if his vague answer was because he was still pissy about the Dracula quip, or because he didn’t want to elaborate in case the large ghoul returned.
“Is she dangerous?” I said in an even softer tone.
Now the glance he shot me was amused in a way that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“Remember the Remnants? Cat derived that power from Marie, and she’s not nearly as good at it as the Ghoul Queen is.”
Suddenly, the ghost-filled cemetery seemed as benign as a children’s playground. The real danger was our host, and Vlad had insisted that I come with him to see Marie. It was so opposite of his usual overprotectiveness that I couldn’t believe it. What was he up to?
I didn’t have time to ask. The ghoul returned, opening the gates with another polite inclination of his head.
“Majestic will see you both. Please come with me.”
I hadn’t been inside a cemetery since I visited my mother’s grave years before. I was still in the hospital the day she was buried, recovering from the power line accident that would forever change me. Her headstone had been a simple upside-down U, with her name and date inscribed on the front. Marie Laveau had a tall white tomb that was riddled with graffiti, while more junk was piled in front of it. None of the other tombs we’d passed had been desecrated this way, and I didn’t understand until a high-school history lesson suddenly popped into my memory as if I’d mentally Googled her.
Marie Laveau wasn’t just known as the Ghoul Queen, as Vlad had called her. History had also referred to her as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I took a closer look at her tomb. That wasn’t graffiti; those X’s were requests for blessings, and what I’d first dismissed as junk actually comprised offerings. Wow. I was about to meet a legendary historical figure.
You married one, dumb ass, came my next thought, and I laughed despite my nervousness.
Vlad cast a sideways glance at me. I waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
Then I jumped, startled, as the stone slab in front of Marie’s tomb began to slide back, revealing an opening. The offerings fell inside and I tried not to think about how it looked like a dark mouth had just swallowed them. Worse, our ghoul guide nodded at the hole in an expectant way. My suspicions were confirmed when Vlad grasped me by the hand and led me to it.
“Put your arms around me and stand on my feet,” he instructed.
I figured out why. The hole was too narrow for us to jump into it standing side by side, and I no more wanted to go first than I wanted to be left alone with the large, imposing ghoul. I planted my feet on top of Vlad’s and wrapped my arms around his neck. He held me tight and dropped us down into the blackness.
It wasn’t a long fall. Only about twenty feet. I didn’t like how the opening above us immediately began to close, but Vlad didn’t seem worried, so I decided not to be, either. After a few moments of hard blinking, my eyes adjusted and I could see the faint outline of a tunnel ahead. Once again, my imagination wasn’t helpful, likening the tunnel to a monster’s throat.
Vlad released me from his embrace but held on to my hand, leading me into the tunnel.
“This is all theatrics,” he said, probably scenting my unease. “Effective for scaring humans, the newly turned, and the easily manipulated, but no more than smoke and mirrors for the rest of us. Still”—he shot a quick smile my way—“I can’t criticize. I keep corpses impaled on poles for the same reason.”
A snort of laughter escaped me and my nervousness lessened. “Birds of a feather,” I quipped.
His teeth flashed in another grin, but beneath that, I caught a hint of ruthlessness. He might have left his guards at the hotel, yet this clearly wasn’t a friendly visit. He intended for something big to go down with Marie, and for some reason, he’d wanted me here when it happened.
I squared my shoulders and found the hard place inside me that would kill if someone I loved was threatened. Especially someone I loved as much as Vlad. Just thinking about the possibility of the voodoo queen trying to harm him made my hand begin to tingle like it was sparking inside the thick rubber glove. When Vlad opened a metal door at the end of the tunnel, I was ready for whatever was on the other side.
Or I thought so. I hadn’t expected a small sitting room with three chairs, a bottle of wine, and three glasses. If not for the stone walls that still held the scent of the graveyard, I would’ve sworn that we’d entered the parlor of a house.
“Vlad Tepesh,” the attractive, black-haired woman said, a heavy Southern accent decorating her voice. “You’ve surprised me twice today. First with your request for this meeting, and now with the news that congratulations are in order.”
It was rude to stare, but I couldn’t help it. Marie Laveau didn’t match the image my mind had conjured. Her coloring was brown sugar and cream and her manner was more refined cougar than female witch doctor. She was dressed in a cranberry-colored silk blouse and a long black skirt, both pieces giving off a vibe of understated elegance, much as Vlad’s clothes did.
“Marie,” Vlad said, with a cordial nod
I didn’t teasingly change my surname to “Dracula” this time. An undercurrent of tension hummed through the room, even if we were all pretending to be on our best behavior. Since I had my gloves on, I shook Marie’s hand. She smiled at me in a friendly way while her eyes raked me with the pitiless assessment I’d grown used to from the undead. Measuring my strengths and looking for my weaknesses.
“Please, sit,” she said, all gracious Southern hostess despite that. “You must try the wine. It’s one of my favorites.”
With those words, a side door opened and our ghoul guide appeared, filling our glasses with a deference that was matched only by his speed. As soon as he was done, he disappeared again.
“To the newlyweds,” Marie said, raising her glass.
Vlad touched his glass to hers and so did I. We drank and I let out a small sound of appreciation. The deep red wine had hints of currant, oak, and more than a hint of blood. I’d have to duplicate that mixture in the future.
“So, Vlad, when did we last see each other?” Marie asked, cocking her head as if trying to remember. I wasn’t buying her act of forgetfulness, and from his response, neither was he.
“Across a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dead ghouls,” he replied in a pleasant tone.
Her gaze narrowed, then she waved a dismissive hand. “Of course. Poor, misguided souls. Those who survived Apollyon’s foolish uprising are following me now, to their benefit.”
Not modest at all, are you? I thought, with an inner shake of my head. Birds of a feather, indeed.
“Jacques told me you have a recording of your marriage,” Marie went on, changing the subject. “May I see it?”
Checking for authenticity? I wondered as Vlad passed his cell phone over. She didn’t seem like the type to ask just so she could ooh and aah with feminine appreciation. Marie took it and tapped the screen. Soon, our voices flowed into the small space, repeating our simple, life-altering vows.
“I wonder why I didn’t see this video before,” she commented as she watched.
If Vlad’s shields hadn’t cracked, releasing a split second of blistering rage, I wouldn’t have noticed her slight emphasis on the word “this.” But they did, and after a moment of wondering why, understanding slammed home.
Szilagyi hadn’t just sent his tapes of me to Vlad. He must have also released them to the entire undead world. Fury flashed through my veins. Of course he’d want everyone to know how he’d snatched Vlad’s wife right out from under him, and then what he’d done to me afterward. To scum like Szilagyi, that would be the same as spiking a football after a touchdown.
“The ceremony was only last night,” Vlad replied, his tone daring Marie to elaborate on what she’d alluded to.
I was still boiling in anger, with humiliation clawing close at its heels. Logic said that I had nothing to be ashamed of, but the thought of everyone looking at me while a mental image of those tapes played in their minds made me want to run for the nearest exit. If I’d suddenly been stripped naked and staked out in public, I would have felt less exposed.
Marie handed Vlad his phone back, a small smile touching her mouth. “It ends rather abruptly, doesn’t it?”
My nails dug into the armrests of my chair. She was making a sex crack now, too?
After Vlad took it, he reached over to clasp my hand. “I never hesitate when it comes to something I want.”
His flesh radiated his usual heat, and the part of me that had fragmented with angry shame soaked it up as if it was the only thing keeping me from shattering into a million pieces.
Marie glanced at our joined hands, at Vlad, and then her brow ticked up. “And what do you want from me?”
Vlad gave her his most charming smile, which was warning enough for me.
“I want to know if you’re the necromancer who cast the spell that nearly killed my wife.”
Marie’s expression went dangerously blank. If the mood in the room had been tense before, it was downright ominous now.
“Why would you suspect me of doing such a thing?” she asked, her Southern accent changing to sugar-coated poison.
Vlad’s genial smile never slipped. “The spell is bound in undead flesh, so only someone skilled in necromancy could have cast it. With your expertise in grave magic, that makes you the most likely suspect.”
My right hand slipped beneath a fold in my long skirt, so Marie couldn’t see me work my fingers to slip my glove off. We might have only seconds before she hit us with those hideous, unbeatable Remnants. I hadn’t knowingly manifested a whip since my capture, but from the burnt slashes in the villa, the ability was still there. If our lives depended on it, I had to do it again. The alternative was unthinkable.
“What if it was me?” Marie’s mouth lifted in a challenging quirk. “What would you intend to do about it?”
“Kill you,” Vlad replied pleasantly.
I tensed, willing all of my energy into my hand for the imminent attack, but Marie only laughed.
“I never pegged you for a fool, Tepesh. You surprise me a third time today.”
With that, a seething gray mass shot up around her before covering the walls of the small room. It took less time for us to be surrounded by the deadly, howling Remnants than it did for me to leap up from my chair, glove off and my hand suffused with glowing, electric white. Vlad remained seated, and to my shock, I saw him regard the Remnants around us with detached amusement.
“Is this supposed to intimidate me?”
He’s lost his mind, I thought numbly. Dear God, Szilagyi had actually managed to drive him crazy.
“Yes,” Marie said, sounding almost as thrown by his response as I was.
He smiled again. “You’ve shown me yours. Now, let me show you mine.”
Fire flooded the room, concealing the Remnants behind bright, destructive bands of crimson, orange, and blue. I only knew that the side door had opened when I heard shouting, but Marie’s ghoul bodyguard couldn’t make it past the flames that were so hot, they began to eat into the stone walls. If Vlad hadn’t held them above the three of us like a gleaming, deadly curtain, only he would have survived.
Just as abruptly, the flames vanished. If not for the smoke and new, charred texture to the walls, no one would have guessed that the room had been a hellish inferno moments ago.
“Now that we’ve compared the equivalent of our supernatural dicks, why don’t you answer my question?” Vlad said, tone as cold as the fire had been hot.
Marie’s gaze narrowed and she waved back Jacques, who ran into the room. “You’re not afraid of my Remnants. Why?”
Another dangerously charming smile. “Answer my question and I’ll tell you.”
She glanced at me before a shake of her head dismissed me as insignificant. Okay, compared to Vlad’s fire display, the buildup of sparks on my right hand was nothing, but that didn’t mean I was helpless, dammit! Anger sent more currents into my hand, but I still hadn’t manifested a whip yet. I might only have one shot, so I needed to grow one. Fast.
“If someone had enlisted my help to kill her,” Marie said at last, “I wouldn’t need to use a spell to do it.”
“Not a direct answer. Perhaps you didn’t know who the spell was for?” Vlad said, tilting his head in my direction. “She’s new to our world, so you might not have recognized her from the pieces of skin used to bind it.”
Marie leaned forward, staring at Vlad as if they were the only two people in the city, let alone the room. “You think I don’t make it my business to know every important new person in my most powerful adversaries’ lives?”
“You consider me your adversary?” Vlad asked silkily.
“Your race, gender, and kind have been my adversaries for the better part of two hundred years, white male vampire,” she said, Southern accent deepening until it was menacingly smooth.
The Remnants surged closer to Vlad, swirling around him like storm clo
“If you are not the necromancer, then swear it by an oath bound in your blood,” Vlad said, leaning forward as well.
Marie let out a contemptuous sniff. “You’re in no position to make demands.”
Vlad didn’t glance at the churning, writhing mass mere inches from him. His gaze was all for Marie.
“I’m not afraid of your pets because I have personal experience with them. Their assault is agonizing, yet takes several minutes to be lethal. I, on the other hand, can explode your head off your shoulders in one-point-eight seconds, and once you’re dead, they go back where they came from.”
At that, I felt ridiculous for standing there, hand poised to strike. Guess my services wouldn’t be needed after all!
Marie’s candy-coated accent became hard. “You can burn objects and places, but you can’t burn people unless you’ve touched them, and you have never touched me, Impaler.”
Vlad laughed, low and insinuating. “Allow me to refresh your memory: you were human and running a liquor store on Dauphine Street. Pure chance that I was in New Orleans at the time. I detest the swamp, but I was traveling with Mencheres and he insisted on seeing Bones, who lived here back then.”
“Many people know I ran a liquor store in my early years,” Marie said, but from the new rasp to her voice, she was rattled.
Vlad’s coppery gaze glinted with green. “How many people know that Gregor was there, too? He and I had the same sire, as you recall, so we were well acquainted with each other. That’s why I accompanied him to see the woman he was considering adding to his line as a ghoul, if she proved useful. Took you ten more years to convince him of your worth, though, didn’t it?”
Bound by Flames by Jeaniene Frost / Mystery & Detective / Romance & Love / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes