With the wizard-elven treaty on the verge of collapse, the preternatural world stands on the brink of war. Unless former wizard sentinel DJ Jaco manages to keep the elven leader, Quince Randolph, focused on peace and not personal matters.
With no one on the throne, Faerie is in chaos, with rival princes battling for power. The still-undead pirate, Jean Lafitte, is building his own army of misfits, and DJstripped of her job and hiding in the Beyond to avoid the death sentence handed down by the wizard Council of Elderscan’t get anywhere near her beloved New Orleans or her significant something-or-other, Alex.
It's time to choose sides. Friends will become enemies, enemies will become allies, and not everyone will survive. DJ and her friends will learn a hard lesson: sometimes, even the ultimate sacrifice isn’t enough.
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By Suzanne Johnson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Suzanne Johnson
All rights reserved.
The full moon blinded me when I landed on my back on the muddy ground, but not enough to obliterate my view of a pirate ghost towering over me with a flambeau and a frown.
"Can you stand, Jolie?" Ah, not a ghost pirate, but a historically undead one. Melting snow and plaster dust had turned Jean Lafitte's elegant blue jacket into a mass of off-white lumps. "I fear you are wounded."
"I fear you are right." My leg burned as if someone had used a flambeau to set it afire.
"I'll carry the wizard." My merman friend Rene Delachaise sat near me on the swampy ground. He jerked up the bottom of his sweater and popped a bullet out of his stomach with his fingers. He tossed it down the hill toward the sound of ocean waves and studied the small wound left behind. "Damned elves are gonna pay for this."
He looked over at me. "How's your leg, babe?"
I struggled to a sitting position and looked down stupidly at the blood soaking my left leg from mid-thigh downward. Finally, it all came back to me, along with a stabbing pain that felt as if a nail were being driven into my thigh all the way to the bone. Like Rene, I had a gunshot wound. Unlike Rene, I wasn't a shapeshifter and couldn't pop out my bullet like an overripe pimple.
We'd landed in the transport set up on the Beyond's version of Grand Terre Island after fleeing New Orleans, and I'd been shot by one of the Elven Synod while escaping from what amounted to a death sentence from my own Elders. I'd lost my freedom. I'd lost my job. I'd had to leave without Alex, my lover and significant something-or-other, who'd stayed behind to clear my name and try to prevent the preternatural world from going to war. The leaders of at least three powerful species wanted me dead or under their control, which meant I was stuck for the foreseeable future in the Beyond, specifically in Old Barataria, a circa 1815 version of the South Louisiana wetlands.
On the positive side, at least for the first time in two weeks I wasn't up to my ass in snow. New Orleans had been floundering under blizzard conditions; Old Barataria was downright balmy.
Cursing like a teamster, I managed to roll to my hands and knees but couldn't stand. "Where's the staff?"
"I have your magic stick, Jolie." Jean held up the ancient staff of the fire elves, whose proper name was Mahout. It looked like a small, insignificant length of wood in his big hand, but everyone here knew it was the most effective weapon on Jean's well-fortified island, at least in the hands of its owner, which would be me.
"Your magic bag is over here." Rene climbed to his feet, seeming no worse for having been shot by an elf who, thankfully, didn't have the good sense to use silver bullets. Rene had almost healed. I'd be well on my way once I could mix a potion with my portable magic kit, which I hoped was still in the bag.
In the meantime, I had no other excuse for staying on my hands and knees like a horse ready for the glue factory. "I can't get up."
Both Jean and Rene moved into action, each grabbing a forearm and pulling me up with enough force that for a few terrifying seconds, I was airborne. Then I landed on my injured leg and it gave way, sending me halfway to the ground again before Rene scooped me up like Rhett Butler ready to charge up the stairs with Scarlett in his arms — well, if Rhett had been a Cajun aquatic shifter.
"Drusilla should be carried only in my arms, mon ami," Jean said to Rene. "She is my ..."
He paused, unsure of what to call me even though we'd established that we were going to officially be friends without benefits. Or at least I had established it and he hadn't verbalized an objection. Now, my empathic skills told me he was feeling possessive. He needed a reality check.
"Get over it, pirate." Rene hefted me more firmly in his arms and headed toward the narrow beach at the bottom of the hill. "I'm younger and stronger. You need to set up guards to watch this transport in case we're followed by any of those elf or wizard SOBs."
Behind me, I heard Jean mutter, "Qu'est-ce que c'est SOBs?"
"Son of a bitch!" I yelled, partly to translate for Jean and partly because Rene's arm pressed against my wound too hard. "Put me down, Rene. I can walk."
"Don't be a stupid wizard. Oh, wait. That was redundant, babe. And no, you can't walk."
He was right, so I shut up and let myself be hauled like a sack of andouille down a mile of moonlit beach. The Gulf of Mexico heaved and tossed waves against the shore to our right, lulling me into a near sleep with my head propped against Rene's shoulder. He wasn't that much taller than me, but he was a wiry kind of muscular and shifter strong. Plus, I trusted him with my life so I let myself relax. I hadn't done much of that lately.
The lights of Maison Rouge, Jean's two-story house near the beach on the eastern end of Grand Terre Island, blinded me again as our ascent up the wooden banquette to the building jolted me awake. Rene reached the front verandah, hauled me inside the wide entry hall, and stopped. "You gonna bleed all over Jean's fancy white couch if I put you down."
I craned my neck and looked at the white-upholstered fainting couch with its richly carved mahogany trim. "Just put me on the floor." At least the hardwood could be wiped off. Hiding out in a place and time without electricity or running water was going to be interesting, although I doubted mine would be the first bloodshed this floor had seen.
"Mais non, that is not acceptable, Rene. Take her to my chambers." The master of the maison strode through the front door. "I have a thing there which will be of assistance."
"Wait." I struggled until Rene finally set me down, although he kept an arm around my waist to hold me upright. "Where are Eugenie and Jake and Adrian?"
"They are upstairs seeing to their accommodations, Jolie." Jean gestured toward the broad staircase that wound its way to the second floor. I knew there were at least three bedrooms up there in the interior of the house; all of the outside rooms were devoted to cannons. Jean's version of a security blanket.
"Are they all okay?" My best friend, Eugenie Dupre, a human only recently introduced to the wonders of preternatural life, was pregnant with the child of my bond-mate Quince Randolf, aka Rand, chief of the elven fire clan and newly self-appointed head of the Elven Synod.
Rand's determination to control Eugenie and his unborn child, and the wizarding Elders' determination to give Rand what he wanted lest he break the centuries-old truce between our two species, had set the whole ugly scene in motion that resulted in a jail sentence for Jake and myself. Adrian, a wizard and newly turned vampire, was also on the lam.
Since the wizards' jail was located in Greenland and I had assumed a watered-down version of elven hibernation when I got too cold, it amounted to a death sentence for me.
"They are all unharmed, although Mademoiselle Eugenie is fatigued and seems disturbed that we do not have the convenience of modern plumbing. From its frequency, she seems to have confused her need to pass water with that of a racing horse. Perhaps you might explain this, Drusilla, when you are yourself mended."
Yeah, because I was all about explaining a pregnant woman's frequent need to pee like a racehorse to an undead pirate.
Jean led the way into the interior hallway of the first floor, where I knew his personal rooms lay, as well as a furnished guest suite I'd visited once before. We passed the guest room and followed him into the master chamber.
It was a large room, with masculine, heavy furniture that Jean had no doubt plundered off the Spanish ships from whose goods he'd made much of his considerable fortune. A large, four-poster bed with a full canopy draped in rich reds and browns consumed much of the room, complemented by an assortment of heavy chests in matching dark wood.
Jean strode to one of the armoires, opened it, and pulled out a thick blanket — or so I thought. Once he'd spread out the heavy, densely woven cotton, I was no longer sure. I grasped one of the corner posters of the bed, which was almost as big around as my waist, relieving Rene of the job of holding me up. "What is that?"
"When on a frigate, it is a sail." Jean spread it out on the bed with efficient movements. He'd done this before. "Over the span of my many years, I found it has other uses as well, such as in the bloody business we now must tend to in removing the bullet from your leg."
Uh-oh. I knew my bullet wouldn't pop out like Rene's, but I planned to extract it magically. "I just need to make a potion. I can handle this with magic." I held on to the bedpost as if it were the mast of a frigate caught in a whirlpool. "If you'll give me a little privacy, please." I would not remove my pants with an audience.
They looked at me with uncertainty, then looked at each other. Finally, Jean shrugged. "This must be done in the time of one hour, Jolie. We do not have your modern medicines here and you must not risk corruption."
I thought I'd probably been corrupted years ago, but assumed it was some old-world term for infection. He was right; I didn't want to risk it.
For the next hour, I tried everything I could devise. A healing potion would trap the bullet inside and end up killing me. A magnetic charm and an attempt to summon the bullet with the elven staff simply caused the piece of molten lead to ping around inside my thigh like a pinball.
After a few other failed efforts, I struggled back into my jeans and limped to the bedroom door, where Jean and Rene stood side by side, watching anxiously.
"Is the bullet removed?" Jean asked.
"Babe, you look like shit," Rene added.
"I can't do it, so you'll have to," I said, wondering why Rene seemed to be turning gray and fuzzy around the edges. "Try not to kill me."
* * *
An argument reached me from somewhere on high. I assumed that God and Saint Peter were above me, debating whether or not I should be admitted to heaven. Apparently, it was a toss-up.
I struggled to open my eyes when I realized God was speaking with a French accent and trying to unfasten my jeans. When Saint Peter told God that the wizard would poke his fucking eyes out with the elven magic stick if he didn't get his hands off her zipper, I knew I hadn't died and gone to heaven. I was still alive and in hell. But at least I was still alive.
"Is it over? Is the bullet out?" My voice sounded puny but it was enough to silence Jean and Rene.
"Non," Jean said. "We are soon to begin. I had hoped you would not awaken beforehand."
Just my luck; I'd be awake for the fun. "Go for it."
The pirate disappeared for a few seconds, then returned wielding a lit candle, a dagger, and a bottle of brandy.
Oh, God in heaven. We were going to reenact every bad bullet-removal scene from every bad historical movie ever filmed. Next thing you knew, he'd be offering me something to bite down on.
"You may bite on this to ease your pain." Jean held up a leather strap, which I was going to use to beat him with as soon as I could sit up. Which wasn't now. My leg throbbed in rhythm with my pulse and felt like a mound of boudin noir stuffed into a denim sausage casing.
"I need anesthesia." I mentally scanned the contents of my bag again and came up empty. I didn't think holy water would help since the wound wasn't technically of demonic origin, although I suspected Satan's evil twin might have been an elf.
My racing thoughts were distracted by a tearing noise and I raised up on my elbows and watched in horror as Rene used the dagger to spear a hole in my jeans just below the promised land and then exercised misuse of shifter strength by ripping off the entire left leg of my jeans.
He stopped, biting his lip, and I flopped back on the pillow when Jean walked up to the other side of the bed and also looked down, confused. "What does this mean, Jolie? Who is this man named Harry? Why would you wear his name on your pantalets?"
"I'll explain later." Rene ripped off the left leg of the Harry Potter pajama bottoms I'd donned in New Orleans as makeshift long johns. "But you got nothing to be jealous about. Just worry about her sense of fashion."
"Bah. She has none."
I refused to take part in this conversation. Besides, Jean had reclaimed the dagger and was holding it in the fire. Pain was coming and coming hard.
I've never been a squealing, crying, mewling sort of woman, but I screamed like a banshee — a real one — when Rene poured brandy on my exposed wound.
"Mon Dieu, non. She must drink it." Jean snatched the bottle away, lifted my head, and engaged in what felt like the alcoholic version of waterboarding. Brandy dribbled down my chin, ran in my nose, seeped down my cheeks, and seared holes in my eardrums. A lot of it, however, went in my mouth and down my throat, peeling off the lining of my esophagus like battery acid. Before long, my leg still burned like a bonfire but I didn't care so much.
When Jean heated the dagger again, however, I did find the presence of mind to grab Rene's arm and jerk him to me. "Where's that damned strap?"
"I have it, sunshine." Jake Warin eased onto the bed next to me and snuggled close. He smelled of fresh salt air and some kind of citrus soap, a far cry from this boudoir of blood and brandy. I inhaled him and relaxed. Jake would protect me since Rene had proven untrustworthy. "We're just gonna lay here together awhile, okay?"
I managed a smile. I was glad Jake had found happiness with Collette, his new fiancée. Glad we'd managed to end up friends even though I took full blame for him being turned loup-garou, a rogue werewolf with poor pack skills and poorer control. Alex couldn't be here with me, but his cousin made me feel closer to him.
It wasn't until I realized Rene stood at the foot of the bed, holding both my ankles down with all his shifter might, that I realized Jake wasn't here to comfort me. I opened my mouth to scream, and Jake slapped the leather strap between my teeth, wrapped his arms around me like a vise, and whispered, "Hold on, DJ."CHAPTER 2
A grinning, gap-toothed pirate set a bowl of steaming brown liquid in front of me. I'd barely eaten in the two days since I'd finally awakened from harrowing pirate surgery and been forced to wear an assortment of Rene's camo shorts, the only thing I'd found that fit me and still gave Nurse Lafitte access to my bandages. Once the bullet had been removed, I'd been able to use one of my healing potions to speed up the process. Didn't work as quickly as in the human world, but it beat healing au naturel.
The days had passed in a blur, with the undead pirates given life in Barataria through the strength of Jean's own memories acting as scruffy French nursemaids.
Today, though, instead of inducing nausea, the rich, meaty aroma of food made my taste buds sit up and remind me that I needed my strength if I wanted to keep wallowing. Self-pity was exhausting.
The pirate-turned-waiter bowed and gabbled something that sounded vaguely French. Then he backed out of the room, probably to run off and hide the evidence of poison, which could have been sneaked onto the island by enemy operatives and spiked into the gumbo. Not that I was paranoid.
I picked up one of the heavy, ornate silver spoons that had been polished to a sheen and poked in my bowl at a suspicious floating lump the color of redwood bark.
"Eat, Jolie," said my French host. "I would be most grievously injured, as would my cook, should you grow faint from lack of nourishment while you are a guest in my home."
God forbid I should offend Jean Lafitte, Interspecies Council representative for the historical undead and the only person undead or alive standing between me and a subzero cell in Greenland. Fugitives from justice should take whatever suspicious mystery meat is provided.
I gave him a reassuring smile and jabbed an elbow at the merman on my right. We sat near the end of a long wooden table in the early nineteenth-century version of a dining room, in this rustic but somehow elegant mansion. "What is this?" I whispered, frowning at the meat.
Rene leaned over and peered into my bowl. "Turtle, babe. What the hell you think it is — dog?" He laughed; Rene had always been good at amusing himself. "Come to think of it, I ain't seen Alex Warin around here."
Excerpted from Belle Chasse by Suzanne Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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