Authors: Marie Castle
I looked up. Catching her outraged expression, I bit my lip, hiding a smile.
“G? What is this?” she demanded.
This time I did smile, giving her my sweetest, most innocent look, feeling Jacq’s sputtering laughter in my head. “Would you prefer Gramsies? Maybe Oma. Wait, I know…” I bounced in the bed, quickly stopping as the pounding in my head jumped with me. “Grandmother Dearest.”
“Well, I—” she huffed. “We must discuss this later.”
Ooo, she was seriously flustered. Now she really did look like my grandmother, though this keep-’em-on-their-toes tactic had only worked with Nana twice before she’d caught on. The Queen rose from her chair, perhaps thinking a strategic retreat was in order, and I pounced.
“Back to this queen business. Is that an elected position? You know, we’re a democracy here.” I waved my hand. “Best people for the job and all that jazz.”
She sank back into the chair, looking more assured now that we were on safer ground. “No. Our bloodline is one of the strongest. We’ve ruled for millennia with power, spilling blood when necessary to ensure the throne.” Her words were emotionless, a simple statement of fact. I saw the moment her feathers settled and her mind caught my direction. Her expression never changed, but there was a guarded stillness in her body.
“Okay.” Spotting my pants, I wobbled off the bed, dimly wondering what petite man had donated the dark gray dress shirt I currently wore. Leaning against the bed, I slid each leg into the dark jeans, eyeing the assortment of bruises that climbed up each thigh. From my stiff soreness, I had a feeling there were more bruises hiding under my shirt. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about tonight. I figure a demon that can’t hold his magic is akin to an Irish that can’t hold his liquor. Three demons?” I shrugged gingerly. “Well, I wouldn’t want anyone to think the crown had grown heavy.”
Some unreadable emotion flashed in her eyes only to be quickly replaced with a simmering anger. The Queen pushed forward, rising to stand again, her cheeks flushing red. “I will not be pushed into a brash answer by a child, one lacking the control of a demon of ten. You have no concept of the world around you. What can you know of
Patience exhausted, I stood and zipped my jeans, wincing as my muscles protested. My temper flared, throbbing in my temples, and my own demon beast stirred. Good intentions not completely forgotten, I kept my voice low but still nearly hissed, “What answer is there to give? I’ve barely had my magic three years. You’ve likely had yours eons.”
Her eyes flickered with surprise before the emotion was quickly snuffed out.
I continued, “The way I see it, you and yours are either too weak to hold yourselves in check or you set a trap with me at its heart. The trap was sprung, but the only thing it caught is this.” I tapped my bandaged head, holding her gaze, our nearly identical light blue eyes dueling. Instead of a suffocating tidal wave of force, her magic was now only a low hum against my skin. I couldn’t sense Van and the guard she called Ramus, but they were no doubt nearby, making my point. Finally I turned away, searching in vain for my shoes. Giving up, I began to hobble to the door. Knowing I was right only made my blood boil hotter.
“Where are you going?” The Queen’s tight voice was strangely resigned. She almost sounded…sad? I doubted my ears, but something made me stop and consider my words carefully.
“To make my hellos and goodbyes then home. We’re done here.” I didn’t look at her, refusing to acknowledge the tight muscles across my chest urging me to stop, turn and go back. I would get my answers. But not tonight, not when I was at such a disadvantage. Behind me, I heard her sink into her chair with a soft
. I stared at the open door, knowing I had lost my ever-loving mind.
I took a deep breath. “You and Van may visit tomorrow evening when we’re all better rested. We’ll try this again. But leave
at home.” I slurred the demon’s name. My earlier show of mercy didn’t mean I’d suffer his company further. “If you must have a guard, I’m sure the Vampire King would happily provide more of his. I’ll even return the favor and promise safe passage…” Stepping from the room, I paused, throwing over my shoulder sweetly, “Barring unforeseen demon attacks of course.” Despite my sugary sarcasm, the addendum left me with a chill I couldn’t shake.
I gently closed the door, not waiting for her to follow. My mother had always warned me to be careful of the company I kept. Dangerous company made for a dangerous life. Good advice, which I would try to follow…at least for the rest of the night.
Too bad I couldn’t say the same for the following day…and every day after. If so, I might have taken my next step with a much lighter heart.
* * *
All Hallows’ Eve, 1725
At their village’s center, the valley’s people built a blazing fire to frighten away the vengeful ghosts causing the sickness slowly stealing their young. Upon the fire, they threw animal bones. Those spirits they could not divert, they would feed. The fire and its revelers, their shadows moving eerily as they danced their prayers to their gods and goddesses, were the first entities the master healer, her son, and their entourage saw when they crossed into the valley. The second was their greeting party. The stockade’s solemn-faced keepers welcomed the travelers before leading them the short distance through the village to where its Master waited at their new home’s wooden gates.
“A truly heathen practice,” commented the tall, pale-haired man. He smiled charmingly at mother and son as he grabbed their frightened horses’ reins. He cocked his head to the fire burning brightly behind them. “But if it keeps them happy.” He flashed another smile that seemed to the youngest among them to be too sharp.
The boy’s mother returned their mysterious new benefactor’s smile. “’Tis a sign of a good Master to care for his people so.” She had been pleased at the offer to work with the reclusive alchemist, LaFortuna, in finding the source of the village’s contagion.
Her son, little more than eight years, had been excited to travel with his mother on one of her journeys. But try as he might, the boy only shivered and tightened his cloak, unable to mirror his mother’s smile. The air smelled of snow, but his chill had nothing to do with the winter about to fall and everything to do with the black-eyed man’s gaze.
Weary from their journey, the group dismounted and entered the stone and wood battlement, leaving the night’s impromptu shamans to finish their fiery ritual of protection. With the blaze’s light burning behind them, the dimly lit stockade seemed as dark as death.
As far as omens went, it couldn’t have been more correct…or more unheeded.
“First things first. Ditch. That. Coffin. Those are sooo last centennial. I’m thinking a waterbed in tones of claret and ebony. What say you, Mr. Bloodsucker Man?”
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Without hesitation, I marched out of the bedroom. Okay, stumbled might be more accurate. But in my heart I marched, even as my body wobbled down a long, empty hall. I stopped at the first open doorway smelling of fresh soap and disinfectant, almost groaning in pleasure as I discovered a much anticipated bathroom. I quickly relieved myself, washed my hands, and threw some cold water on my face. Only then did I dare look in the mirror. This time I did groan, but it certainly wasn’t from anything pleasurable.
Between the large bandages circling my head, the bruises running down my neck, the tangled, blood-speckled hair, and sunken eyes, I looked like a drug-addicted bedlam escapee who had met the wrong end of a Mack truck. I tried to finger-comb my hair but quickly gave up. Nothing short of a hot shower and a giant glob of conditioner would fix this.
I was turning to leave when the peripheral reflection of my own eyes captured my attention. My mind flashed back to awakening and seeing the Demon Queen. Her light blue gaze, nearly identical to the one in the mirror, had been obscured by the silver rims of reading glasses. Until this moment I had overlooked the oddity. Why would someone as powerful as an immortal demon queen need glasses?
Perhaps it was an affectation, something to appear human. Many of Earth’s Supernaturals had donned such disguises because they longed to blend in or were required to for work, safety, or other reasons. But Denoir’s Queen was from the Otherworld where being
The woman in the mirror shrugged and tipped her head toward the door. Whatever their purpose, the glasses were a mystery for another day. My legs were growing weak. I needed to go while I could still move under my own momentum.
Leaving the bathroom, I followed the tug of Jacq’s mind down the hall, through an open wooden door, and into the room where I knew she would be. Oddly, I didn’t wonder at awakening to find her absent from my side. I had the impression she’d been there for a very long time and had only just left. But while
didn’t surprise me, I was surprised to find her so far away when I’d heard her so clearly not long before. I wondered at my heightened senses but put away that thought to ponder later.
Much wider than the bedroom I’d left, the room appeared to be a sitting room with chairs and sofas clustered at the opposite end near an unlit fireplace. As I moved, my toes sank into thick carpet, its color indistinguishable in the dim light. I briefly scanned my surroundings, noting the baby grand piano in the corner and the dark wallpaper with a pattern of vines trailing up the walls. I had a moment to wonder who played the piano then spotted the woman I was looking for. Jacq sat on a sofa facing a man I couldn’t see. My auburn-haired protector looked comfortable, making me think she wasn’t talking to Vanguard. I wasn’t sure why, but something about the demons made my love nervous. Of course, anyone, mortal or immortal alike, would do well to be nervous in a demon’s presence. But this was something different.
From halfway across the room I couldn’t be certain of the man’s identity. But I had a good guess and took a chance, demanding, “Seth, I need to borrow a car.” Though Jacq’s remote, congenial façade never slipped, her surprise in my head confirmed my suspicions. I rounded the chair and stood with hands on hips, glaring as the tall vampire, a much darker blond than his fair sister, smiled charmingly.
“Hello, Cate. You’re looking as lovely as ever.” He saluted me with a glass of something so red it was nearly black. Jacq had a matching glass, so I hoped it was wine. “I see why we had to forcefully pry this one,” he gestured to Jacq, “away from your side for even a moment of rest.”
“And you’re as full of shit as ever.” I crossed my arms over my chest. Mouth twitching, I tapped a bare foot, not bothering to sit. My new grandmother had let me leave without further argument. I wasn’t sticking around for her to change her mind.
“I see you two have met.” Jacq’s husky voice was amused, but I felt her anxiety. She thought it reckless to tease the big bad vamps. And she was right. But as usual, instead of criticizing, the stubborn, chivalrous woman was preparing to come to my aid.
However, this time it wasn’t necessary.
Contrary to popular belief, I knew exactly what I was doing. I slipped my hand behind my back, gave her a little wave, and felt Jacq relax, her concern turning to puzzled gratefulness. My poor phoenix. Her exhaustion flowed through our link. I wasn’t sure what had occurred after I had blacked out, but it had no doubt been trying.
All the more reason to get while the getting was good.
“Yes, dear Cate was the one that got away.” Seth waved his glass, managing only through supernaturally-fast reflexes not to slosh it over. “She broke my heart.” He put a hand dramatically over the organ in question.
I snorted, saying to Jacq, “I did no such thing.” I frowned at the vampire. “Seth, you know better than to besmirch a lady’s character. You took me to dinner then asked me to be the bloody main course. I—justifiably, I might add—told you to go to hell.” Jacq choked on her wine. I gave her a concerned look. “And it looks like you took my advice. Though apparently, the seven realms does deliveries now.”
Two years ago, I’d briefly consented to date the Master Vampire. There’d been absolutely no chemistry. I’d thought his request was out of courtesy to Serena. I’d soon learned both Seth and his sister had very different, very unappealing plans for me. I had quickly ended Seth’s romance. I understood Serena’s motives and retained her friendship, but her brother’s needs went beyond what I could offer. Had he only wanted blood as I’d joked, I could have said no and maintained his friendship. But there had been more. And I’d avoided the Vampire King ever since.
Between then and now something had obviously changed. Perhaps Seth’s desires were being met some other way, because tonight the only danger I felt was the possibility of biting through my tongue.
“You wound me, Cate.” Another dramatic hand flourish. “How could I ever love another? This is business darling, truly business.” Seth had obviously been watching the Blood Soaps again. Their characters gave new meaning to melodrama.
“Careful, I nearly lost my head once in the name of over-abundant caution. I know how trigger-happy your groupies are.” My tone was playful yet serious. I glanced around, noting the discreet surveillance cameras. Rarely was the King of the Southern States ever truly alone.
Seth sat taller, all humor gone, his tone grave. “My doctor kept me updated. Though I’m glad to see you on your feet, this occurrence is unforgivable. Had I known of your involvement with whatever Denoir’s Queen had planned, I would have come myself to ensure your safety.” He looked away, saying softly, “We of the Blood have so few true friends. My sister is fortunate to call you hers. I would not see you harmed.”
“Thank you.” My throat was tight and my eyes misty. Maybe it was the large dent in my head, but I felt emotional. I wanted to turn all PBSkids and say I was his friend too but knew better. Offering friendship to such a powerful person was dangerous, especially when one wasn’t sure of the cost.