At graves end, p.23
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       At Graves End, p.23

         Part #3 of Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
 
Chapter Twenty-Three

 

  IT WAS DECEMBER 27,AND WE WERE ASSEMBLED in an opera house, of all things. I was dressed all in black, which suited my mood. I would have been fine wearing a garbage bag, but vampires dressed up for occasions and I had a part to play. Black leather boots completed the effect. The only color on me was the thin silver chain around my waist where several daggers of the same metal dangled. It was an unspoken threat and promise of protection combined.

  Mencheres and I were center stage. Even though everyone in the theater knew why they were there, for formality's sake, he repeated the news of Bones's death. I refused to let any emotion appear on my face as those devastating words were spoken again, slicing into me with the same pain I'd felt upon first hearing them.

  ". . . and as was his decree, the Mastership of his line passes to his wife, Cat. " Mencheres held out his hand and I accepted it. "From this night forward, all who belong to you are mine, as all of mine are yours. To seal this alliance, blood is required. Catherine, you who are also known as the Red Reaper, do you offer your blood as proof of your word?"

  I repeated the required words I never thought would be crossing my lips. Then I drew a knife across my palm in a deep cut. Mencheres took the same blade and sliced his own palm, clasping his hand over mine.

  "My blood is also proof of my word. If I betray our alliance, it will be my penalty. "

  Our joined hands were raised for effect, mine tingling as it healed on contact with his blood, and then we let go. It was done.

  Or not quite.

  "I refuse to call the half-breed my leader, and I challenge for freedom from her line. "

  "Thomas, you insolent sod!" Spade strode forward from his place at the perimeter of the stage. "If Crispin were here, he'd rip out your spine and flog you with it. But as his best friend, I'll perform that task myself. "

  In truth, I wasn't surprised. At any formal gathering, a vampire could request or challenge for their independence. If the Master wanted to be benevolent or it had been agreed on beforehand, they would grant it without a fight. But if not. . .

  "Don't even think of it, Spade," I said. "Bones would appreciate your intentions and so do I, but that man challenged me and I'll answer it. "

  "Cat. " Spade gripped my shoulders, lowering his voice. "You haven't slept in days, you barely eat or drink, and all you do is train. If not me, let Mencheres answer this. He'll make such an example of this sod that anyone else considering such a thing will find it markedly less appealing. "

  "You're right. " Spade relaxed, but Bones would have known better. "This creep does need to be made an example of, but by me. If I can't do this, then this line will be torn apart from the inside out. Thomas!"

  I pushed Spade back and went to the edge of the stage. "Your challenge is accepted. If you want your freedom. . . " I cracked my knuckles and rolled my head on my shoulders. "Come and get it. "

  Thomas walked toward the stage, one clean jump taking him onto the elevated platform. The rest of the vampires cleared a path, Mencheres cutting Spade's further protest short with a wave of his hands. I almost smiled as I watched. This was the closest thing to therapy I could do.

  "How do you want to die?" I asked, boring my gaze into his. "Because you will, you know. So pick your poison. Swords, knives, mallets, or skin on skin. "

  Thomas was my height, and he had blue eyes and curling, brownish-red hair. All this I noticed while measuring his aura. He had the resonating power of a strong vampire. This wasn't a teenager in undead years.

  "I will kill you swiftly out of respect for my sire," he answered with an Irish accent.

  I gave a sharp bark of amusement. Combined with his short height and round cheeks, Thomas reminded me of the leprechaun from the cereal I ate as a kid. They're after me Lucky Charms! I wanted to chant at him. Too bad he wasn't wearing green, that would have made it perfect.

  "If you had any respect for Bones, you wouldn't be challenging for your freedom in the middle of a war," I hissed instead. "As he would say,Very bad form. "

  "It was his misfortune to be enthralled by a witch such as you," he said as he selected a knife from the display of hastily arranged weapons. I didn't bother to pick-I was wearing several on my belt. "You incited him to war based on an assault that never really happened!"

  There was an eruption of curses from several of the vampires on the stage. Cold fury enveloped me. Trying to go for the low blows, was he? All right, then.

  I let out a cry and hunched as if struck. Thomas sprinted forward in a flash of speed. When he was on me, his knife millimeters from a killing blow, I twisted to the side and jammed his own blade deep in his stomach. Soon more sharp silver found a home through his heart. It all happened in less than a second.

  "You dumb fuck, guess you weren't paying attention when Bones told you not to fall for a bluff. "

  With my knife in his heart, Thomas froze like he'd been turned to ice. I leaned closer to almost whisper in his ear.

  "Tell Bones hello for me," I said, then twisted the blade in his heart. "And when he gets ahold of you, you'llreally be sorry. "

  I gave Thomas's slowly shriveling body a kick that sent him down into the seat where the orchestra would normally sit. Then I tucked my knife back into my belt, not even bothering to wipe the blood off.

  There was commotion in the back. The sound of doors banging open. I glanced up just as Mencheres came forward and gripped my hand.

  "Cat, I am very sorry, but I had no idea she would do this," he grated. "You cannot attack her at a formal gathering, it's against our laws. To do so would condemn us all. "

  Those words chased away my momentary confusion over who the five vampires were who entered the theater. Late arrivals, had been my first thought. Then that fucking laugh told me otherwise even as Mencheres was still speaking. I knew that laugh. It branded me.

  "Mencheres, my husband, aren't you going to greet me?"

  My fingers whitened on his, squeezing so hard, Mencheres's bones fractured as fast as they could heal. Patra had spoken to him, but her eyes were all for me as she descended the aisle with serpentine grace.

  Patra didn't have the famous blunt Egyptian haircut so often shown in movies about her mother. No, she had threads of gold highlights in her long black hair. Her brows weren't as thick as Hollywood suggested, either. Actually, they were slender. So was she. In fact, she was more athletic than voluptuous. Her skin was pale, but darker than mine. Almost honey-colored. Her nose was slightly longer than fashion favored, but there was no question about it, Patra was beautiful.

  "Why?"

  I spat the question to Mencheres while not taking my eyes from her. Everything in me was wound to the breaking point. Kill, was all my mind was capable of thinking.

  "It's our laws. As my wife, she can be present at any formal gathering, but she cannot attack us. Neither may we injure her, however. She seeks to provoke you to violence, but don't give her such an easy victory. "

  Oh, she'd provoked me to violence, all right. I wanted to rip her apart and wear her blood for clothing. My eyes flared, green rays of loathing shining on her.

  "Hello, bitch. "

  She laughed again in an insinuating, purring way. "So you're the half-breed. Tell me. " A gleam appeared in her eyes. "Have you slept well recently?"

  Some part of me was amazed I hadn't combusted in rage. The other half heard me laugh in a bright, chipper tone that was so at odds with how I felt.

  "That's the best you can do? Oh, Patra. How boring. "

  Whatever she'd been expecting, it wasn't that. Hell, I was surprised at myself.

  Patra didn't like being laughed at. Her incensed expression was evidence of that.

  "I'm not as stupid as you're hoping," I went on. "Now, either shut up or leave, because you're interrupting things. There's got to be a law about that as well. "

  "I'll go. " Her smile was contemptuous. "I've seen what I wanted. You're nothing
, and soon you'll be less than that. But before I leave, I thought you should know why you're in this war in the first place. I'm betting my husband hasn't told you, has he?"

  "Told me what?"

  She laughed again, and I found myself thinking I hated her laugh more than any sound I'd heard before it.

  "Haven't you asked yourself why I turned against Mencheres in the first place? If I hadn't, then there would be no war, and no reason to kill you or Bones. "

  If she was waiting for me to encourage her to go on, all she got was silence. Patra sighed.

  "Very well, I'll explain. When Mencheres offered to make me a vampire, I told him I wouldn't cross over unless he changed my lover Intef as well. But after I woke up from my death, Mencheres told me Intef had been killed before his people could reach him. "

  She paused to give Mencheres a look filled with loathing.

  "Then one day Anubus, a former friend of Mencheres, broke his silence. Intef wasn't killed by the Romans. Mencheres did it. You see, little half-breed, you're in this war because I'm finally getting revenge on my lover's murderer, so who'sreally to blame for Bones's death?"

  I glanced at Mencheres, who closed his eyes briefly before meeting my stare. I saw it then. That what Patra had said was true, every word of it. For a moment, I was overwhelmed with the urge to stab both of them for their ruthlessness in getting what they wanted.

  Then I turned back to Patra. "I get your motivation. But you should have just gone after Mencheres. Instead, you chose to kidnap people's family members to force them to suicide bomb themselves. You chose to murder Bones, and for that, I'm going to kill you. You of all people should understand why. "

  Patra smiled. "Because I understand your pain, I'm going to free you of it. " She raised her voice. "I offer amnesty to anyone who leaves her and joins me! Furthermore, to the man or woman who slays her, I offer a reward beyond your ability to fathom. You have the word of a god. "

  I gave her a stare that was harder than the diamond on my hand. "You arrogant bitch, I'll see you dead, and that's the word of a half-breed. "

  Patra gave me a last disparaging glance and turned her back. Her four escorts flanked her as she ascended the aisle in the same sweeping manner she'd arrived.

  Only after the doors closed behind them did I let my breath out. I was so furious, I was shaking.

  The silence was complete, absent of the typical human shuffling or nervous clearing of throats. I went over to the side of the stage where the weapons were and almost gently pulled out a sword. Better to deal with the repercussions of Patra's offer now than to let the idea that I was too weak to lead simmer and grow.

  "All right, whoever believes that bitch and thinks they can take me, here I am. "

  The challenges came thick and fast, several different voices calling out. This time I didn't offer the choice of weapons-I kept my sword. And one at a time, I hacked, stabbed, or decapitated each vampire who stepped onto the stage. All my pent-up fury and grief I put into my blows, thankful that for those brief moments, I could feel something aside from pain.

  When I'd finished with the eighth vampire, running my sword through his heart so deeply half my arm followed, my outfit was sliced in dozens of places and gaping indecently in some. Ironically, my own injuries had healed with the continued contact of fresh vampire blood.

  I turned toward the audience. "Who else thinks they can cut me down?"

  No one else called out a challenge. I drove the sword into the center of the stage like it was Excalibur into the proverbial stone. Then I wiped some blood from my cheek with the ragged remains of my sleeve and turned to Mencheres.

  "Now can we leave?"