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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

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BOOK: Cerulean Sins
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I could smell the musty scent of fur, the rich, almost eatable smell of the forest. It was the smell of the pack. The werewolves that had come to guard our back had stepped up through the crowd. I could feel the wolves ranged behind me, feel them like there was an invisible thread between Jason, me, and them. Jean-Claude's ties to the wolves were direct, they were his animal to call. He didn't need Richard's beast to call the wolves. I needed a surrogate wolf to bind me to them. Richard should have been at our back, but he wasn't. If Jason had not been there to be our third, then Belle might have raised the
ardeur
, drowned us in memories of her sweet flesh. Flung us out into the room and turned my Mexican standoff into an orgy.

But Jean-Claude gave me his control through the press of his hand; Damian gave me his desperate reserve through his body molded against my back; Jason fed the pulse of the pack into the bend of my neck. We were not
merely a triumvirate of power; through Damian's addition, we were more. And that more was stronger than Belle Morte trapped in Musette's body. If she'd been here in person, it might have been a different story, but she wasn't. She was way the hell in Europe somewhere.

A howl broke out behind me, and another, and another. Jason threw his head back, making a long clean line of his throat. A howl trembled from his mouth, to join with the chorus behind us. The sound rose and fell, one wolf's note dying off, another taking up the call, until the sound rose and fell like music—lonely, trembling, amazing music.

I met Belle's pale brown eyes and found them full of fire, like staring at flames through brown glass. It did remind me of her eyes in the memory she had chosen, but it was just a memory. There was no bite or pull to it now. The
ardeur
lay quiet, held behind the bars we had forged for it, from sheer force of will, and months of practice.

“The last time you rolled the
ardeur
over us, it was new to me. It's not new anymore,” I said.

Something flowed under Musette's skin. It was like watching a second face roll underneath her skin. Again, I half expected Belle to burst out through Musette's body like some kind of shape-shifter. But the rolling shape stopped, and those dark fire eyes stared into mine.

“There will be other nights, Anita,” she said, in that low, almost purring voice of hers.

I nodded. “I know.”

With that she vanished. Musette fell back onto the floor into a . . . dead faint. Her vampires rushed forward. The wolves stayed at my back, the werehyenas stepped up, the wererats drew guns, and Bobby Lee said, “Don't queer our shot, gentlemen.”

The werehyenas hesitated, forming two groups one to either side of the vampires. Our vampires peeled off from Musette's and eased through the crowd of wereanimals. “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt,” Bobby Lee said.

“Let them fetch their mistress,” Jean-Claude said.

Some of the shape-shifters looked his way, none of the wererats did. We had this much backup not because Jean-Claude had a tie to any other animal except the wolves, but because I'd made friends. The wererats and werehyenas were here for me, not him.

“Ease down, Bobby Lee, let them get Musette. I certainly don't want to have to take care of her.”

The men and women, wererats all, with their guns nicely pointed, moved back in two lines so the vampires had to walk between them to reach Musette. Angelito had joined them, but Bobby Lee motioned him back with a wave of his gun barrel. Angelito was imposing, but he was also one of the few humans among them. I wasn't sure the big man was the most dangerous
person on their side. A little girl of seven or eight with dark curls cut short around an angelic face flashed dainty fangs and hissed at me. An older boy who looked like a young twelve, or an old ten, picked Musette's shoulders up, raising her limp figure off the ground as if she weighed nothing. He didn't flash fangs, he just looked at me with dark, unfriendly eyes.

A male vamp in a dark conservative suit got Musette's feet, though he made no move to take the small woman from the boy. I knew the male vamp could have carried her easily, but he didn't argue with the boy. The boy didn't lack strength, just height, and leverage.

They carried her back to Angelito, who took her from the others. Musette looked tiny held in his long arms. There were people in the room who had thicker arms than Angelito. The werehyenas were bodybuilders, but there was no one on our side that had the length and size of Musette's little angel.

Jean-Claude stood, drawing me to my feet. Damian moved as I moved. Jason, too. “We have rooms prepared for all of you. You will be escorted to them, then we will leave guards outside your doors, for the protection of all concerned.”

Bobby Lee was still holding his gun nice and steady on the vamps. “Anita?” he made my name a question.

“I don't want them wandering around without guards on them, so yeah, sounds like a good idea to me. You guys able to stick around that long?”

“Honey-child, I would follow you to the ends of the earth. 'Course we can.” He laid the southern accent on thick enough to walk across.

“Thanks, Bobby.”

“Our pleasure.”

“Meng Die, Faust, you know the way to the rooms, show our guards where to go.” Meng Die was lovely, delicate, with perfectly straight black hair cut just above her shoulders; her skin was like pale porcelain. She would have looked like a perfect China doll if she hadn't liked wearing skintight black leather most of the time. The leather sort of ruined the image. She was a Master Vampire, and her animal to call, I'd been surprised to learn, was the wolf. Strangely, this didn't make her any more attractive to the wolves or me. She was just too damn unfriendly.

Faust was not much taller than Meng Die, but he didn't make you think delicate, just short. He was cheerfully attractive—like the boy next door if he happened to be a vampire—and had dyed his hair a dark wine-burgundy. His eyes were the color of new pennies as if the brown had a touch of fresh blood in it. He was a Master Vampire but not strong enough to ever be Master of the City, or at least not hold on to it. A weak Master of the City is usually a dead one.

Meng Die and Faust led the way through the drapes and the far corridor beyond. Musette's vamps went next. The wererats and the werehyenas
brought up the rear. The drapes swished closed behind them. We were left alone with our thoughts. I hoped everyone else's thoughts were more useful than mine, because all I could think was that Belle wouldn't like being given her hat and shown the door. She'd find a way to make us eat the insult, if she could. Maybe she couldn't, but she was over two thousand years old, according to Jean-Claude. You didn't survive that long without knowing things, things that would make your enemies run screaming. The council member we'd killed had been able to cause earthquakes simply by thinking about it. I was pretty sure Belle had her own special tricks. I just hadn't seen them yet.

10

L
ESS THAN AN
hour later Jean-Claude and I were in his room, alone. Damian was one of the guards outside our door. We'd split our vamps up among the wereanimals so that, hopefully, the bad vampires couldn't use mind tricks on the wereanimals without the vamps knowing it. We'd done the best we could do, which had actually been pretty damned good. The
ardeur
was still in hiding. I wasn't questioning it, just grateful.

Jean-Claude's large four-poster bed was draped in blue silk, mounded with pillows in at least three vibrant shades of blue. He traded the drapes and pillows to match whatever color the sheets were, so I knew without looking that the sheets would be blue silk. Jean-Claude did not do white sheets, no matter what they were made out of.

He was sitting in the room's only chair, slumped down, hands crossed over his stomach. I was sitting on the rug that he'd put beside the bed. The rug was actually fur, thick and soft, and somehow just by touch you knew it had once been alive. We'd both been strangely reluctant to go to bed. I think we were both afraid the
ardeur
would rise, and we weren't ready for it.

“Let me test my understanding,” I said.

Jean-Claude looked at me, moving only his eyes.

“Tomorrow night, if Asher is still nobody's, will they be within their rights to ask for him?”

“Not as they did tonight, no, you have made that impossible now, unless they can take him by force.”

I shook my head. “I've been around enough vamp politics to know that if you stop them from doing one thing, they'll do something else, not because they want to, but because it will cause you pain.”

He frowned at me.

I sighed. “Let me try that again. Here's the deal, what are they within their rights to ask from us, while they're here?”

“Hunting rights, or willing donors, lovers—the basic needs to be met.”

“Sex is a basic need?”

He just looked at me.

“Sorry, sorry. So I understand the willing donor part, they've got to eat. But the lovers, what does that mean, exactly?”

“It would be déclassé to demand lovers for the servants, so Musette's lady's maid and butler are not to be worried over. The two children are special cases. The girl is physically too young, she does not think of such things. The boy is a problem. Bartolomé was precocious, which is why Belle sent Musette to take him.”

I stared at him. “Please, tell me that Musette never had sex with the kid?”

He seemed suddenly tired, rubbing his eyes with his fingertips. “Do you wish the truth, or a more pleasant lie?”

“The truth, I guess.”

“Belle Morte can smell sexual appetite, it is one of her gifts. Bartolomé may look like a child, but he does not think like one, nor did he when he was human and a true boy of eleven going on twelve. He was the heir to a great fortune. Belle wanted to control that fortune. He was also notorious in an age when noble sons were allowed almost any indiscretion with women who were not of noble blood.”

“Explain that,” I said.

“He looked like a child, Anita, and he would use that innocent face to maneuver women into compromising situations. By the time they realized that they were in danger of abuse, it was often too late. More than that, he threatened to accuse them of being the aggressor. There was no such phrase as child molestation in that century, but everyone knew it happened. Children were often married as young as ten or eleven, so the people who had such tastes could satisfy their needs within the marriage bed, until their spouses became too old for their tastes, then they would look outside their marriage, or by that time their own children might be old enough.”

I stared at him. “I don't think I wanted to know that last part. That is beyond disgusting.”


Oui, ma petite,
but it is still true. A fortune as large as Bartolomé's would normally be Belle's task. She would never leave such monies, or lands, or titles, to anyone else. But she is not a lover of children, no matter how grown-up they may be, so she cast it to Musette. Who, as you now realize, will do anything our mistress bids her do.”

“I got that impression.”

“So, yes, she seduced, or allowed herself to be seduced by the boy. Belle
gave her a touch of the
ardeur
and Bartolomé was enraptured. Belle did not mean to bring him over to us as a boy. She meant to wait until he grew older, but Bartolomé was thrown from his horse. He had crushed his skull, and was dying. His next brother was only five, and Belle would have no hold on him. She needed Bartolomé, and so she bid Musette finish him.”

“How did he feel when he woke up?”

“He was happy to be alive.”

“How'd he feel when he finally realized he'd be a little boy forever, no matter how precocious?”

Jean-Claude sighed. “He was . . . unhappy. Bringing children over is forbidden for a reason. Musette did not make Valentina one of us. Belle found that one of her Master Vampires was a pedophile and had brought over children to be his permanent . . . companions.” His voice went soft at the end.

I felt ill. I breathed deep and slow. “Sweet Jesus,” I said.

“He had broken our prohibition against bringing over children, and when Belle Morte found out why he had done it . . . she slew him. With full permission of the council, she slew him. They destroyed most of the children he had made. They were vampires trapped in children's bodies, and they had been abused.” He shook his head. “Their minds did not survive, not whole.”

“So how did Valentina escape?” I asked.

“She was his newest and had yet to be touched. She was a child and a vampire but she was not mad. Belle took her in and found her people to care for her. She had human nannies for many years. She had human playmates. I must say that Belle did her best for Valentina. I think she blamed herself for not realizing what a true monster Sebastian was.”

“Why do I think this ideal picture doesn't stay ideal?”

“You know us too well,
ma petite
. Valentina tried to turn some of her playmates into vampires, so she would not be the only one. When her nanny discovered her, Valentina slit her throat. That was the end of human nannies and human playmates.”

“That's why the vampire nanny,” I said.

He nodded. “She does not truly need one in the traditional sense of a child's need, but she is forever eight years old, and even today she cannot catch a taxi by herself, register in a hotel, without people wondering. Some well-meaning human will call the police to report the poor abandoned child that's staying in their hotel.”

“She must hate it.”

“It?”

“Her existence,” I said.

He gave half a shrug. “I do not know. I do not speak to Valentina.”

“You're afraid of her.”


Non, ma petite
, but I am unnerved by her. The few children that survive for centuries are twisted things. It cannot be otherwise.”

“How did she end up with Musette's entourage?”

“Valentina was taken before her body grew large enough for much physical pleasure. She has turned such energies into other,” he licked his lips, “avenues of interest.”

I sighed. “Musette is Belle's torturer, which means that Valentina is what, her little assistant in the torture?”

He nodded, head resting against the chair back, eyes closed. “Valentina has been a very apt pupil.”

“She's tortured you?”

He nodded, eyes still closed. “I told you that the price for Belle saving Asher's life was my servitude for a century among them. But Belle wished to punish me for leaving her, and for a long time she gave me to pain rather than pleasure.”

I went to him, crawling on the floor by his chair, smoothing my skirts down automatically, though there was no one there to see. “So Valentina won't be asking for a lover.”


Non
.”

“Will she try for a . . . what? Submissive?”


Oui.

“Can we just refuse?”


Oui
.”

“Can we make the ‘no' stick?”

He opened his eyes and looked down at me. “I believe so, but to say absolutely would be too close to a lie.”

I shook my head. “If Musette left tonight, and returned in three months, would we have less ground to stand on?”

“She will not leave,
ma petite.

“No, that's not what I mean. What I mean is, if she had come in three months after good faith negotiations had gone through, would I still have been allowed to get away with what I did tonight? Or would we have faced the council's wrath?”

“We would have chosen a victim for Musette, or chosen a lover for her, or both before she arrived. It would have been settled and not a surprise.”

“You know most human guests don't expect their hosts to supply them with sex partners.”

“Nor do most of the bloodlines that descend from the council, but Belle's line is built upon sex, and it has become custom to offer any of Belle's line sex when they visit you. It is assumed that we all carry a touch of her succubus within us.”

“That's not true,” I said.


Non
, but no one of her line has ever wished to dissuade others of the lie.”

I smiled, thought about laughing, and was too tired. “We can keep Willie and Hannah safe because they've got to be in charge of the two clubs. We've already negotiated that our businesses are not to be disrupted by the visit,” I said.

“Belle was always one to keep her mind on where the money was coming from, so yes, Willie is my manager for The Laughing Corpse, and Hannah is temporary manager of Danse Macabre. The two weakest of my flock are safe away.”

“Damian is my vampire servant, I'm your human servant, you're Master of the City, Jason is your
pomme de sang
, Nathaniel is my
pomme de sang
, Micah is my lover and my Nimir-Raj, Richard is Ulfric, and the bodyguards can't guard our bodies if they're screwing other people.”

“We have made everyone as safe as we can,
ma petite
.”

“There's one name that's conspicuously absent from that list, Jean-Claude.”

“Three actually,
ma petite
, four if you count Gretchen.”

“Gretchen is crazy, Jean-Claude. You got a special pass for her from Belle because she's still ill, right?” Gretchen had tried to kill me once, as punishment, she got locked up in a coffin for a while. The isolation had driven her even crazier.


Oui
, Gretchen will keep to her room for Musette's visit, but that does not protect Meng Die or Faust.”

“Faust likes men, and to my knowledge nobody in Musette's party is gay, right?”


Oui
, but that is not always a barrier.”

“We laid down the law tonight, that no one was to be hurt again. Forcing someone to have sex with a partner they find repugnant is a form of rape, and thus it's harm.”

He looked at me, surprised. “
Ma petite
, you are becoming devious.”

I shook my head. “Nope, just practical. So Faust is safe, because he only likes men and none of Musette's men likes men. Torture is out, because that's just harm.”

“Meng Die will fascinate Bartolomé.”

“But again, Meng Die doesn't like children, so Bartolomé would have to rape her to get his way with her, thus . . .”

“She is safe from his advances.” He seemed to think about that for a second or two. “But what of Angelito?”

“Isn't he a couple with Musette? Aren't they doing each other?”

“When they wish to, yes.”

I frowned at him. “Not a hot pair?”

“Musette's true love is not sex, which is why she and Valentina have been so close for so long.”

“Not our problem. If everyone has access to someone they can fuck, or we have no suitable partners for them outside of rape, then everyone's covered. Or have I missed something?”

He thought about it quietly for a few minutes. “
Non, ma petite
. Your machinations are worthy of Belle herself, if her intention were to keep her people safe.” Then he looked at me. “Except for one problem. Musette has had sex with Asher in the past, so you cannot make a charge of rape.”

“Having sex in the past doesn't mean it can't be rape in the present,” I said.

He waved that away with his hand. “I know that you believe that,
ma petite
, I will not even disagree, but Musette will not be dissuaded by the argument. Asher likes both men and women, he has had sex with her and enjoyed it in the past. You have made sure she cannot physically harm him, so it would be merely sex, merely fucking. He would not be harmed by that.”

I raised eyebrows at him. “You believe that, that there'd be no harm to it?”


Non
, nor does Musette in truth. Musette knows, Belle knows, that to have sex with Musette again after all these years will be painful for Asher. It will harm him, but not in a way that Belle will let us negotiate around. To Belle Morte, if a man has an orgasm, then he must have enjoyed himself. It is her reasoning.”

“She really doesn't understand that there's a difference between lust and love, does she?”


Non, ma petite, très non
.”

“Why is it always Asher that we can't protect? Asher that we can't save?”

He shook his head. “I have asked that for a very, very long time,
ma petite.
I have yet to find an answer.”

I laid my cheek against his knee. “This is the longest I've ever been able to go between feedings.” I glanced a my watch. “It's almost two.”

“Dawn will come in three, almost four hours. I must rescind the control I have lent you for the
ardeur
before then. You must feed it.”

“It's not only your control is it?”

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