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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

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Mrs. Bennington came towards us, with her lawyers in tow. I thought I'd have to ask them to keep her off the grave, but she stopped outside the circle, as if she could feel it. Sometimes the people that turn out to be psychically gifted surprise you. I doubt if she was even aware of why she stopped moving forward. Of course, she was holding her hands tight to her body. She was not reaching out to touch her husband. I don't think she wanted to find out what that waxy looking skin felt like. I couldn't blame her.

Conroy and the other lawyers tried to keep asking questions, but it was the judge who said, “Gordon Bennington has answered all your questions in detail. It's time to let him get back to . . . rest.”

I agreed. Mrs. Bennington was in tears, and Gordon would have been too, except his tear ducts had dried up months ago.

I got Gordon Bennington's attention. “Mr. Bennington, I'm going to put you back now.”

“Will Gail and the children get the insurance money now?”

I glanced behind me at the judge. He nodded.

“Yes, Mr. Bennington, they will.”

He smiled, or tried to. “Thank you, then, I'm ready.” He gazed back at his wife, who was still kneeling on the grass by his grave. “I'm glad I got to say good-bye.”

She was shaking her head, over and over, tears streaming down her face. “Me, too, Gordie, me, too. I miss you.”

“I miss you too, my little hell cat.”

She burst into sobs at that. Hiding her face in her hands. If one of the lawyers hadn't grabbed her she'd have fallen to the ground.

‘My little hell cat'
didn't sound like a term of endearment to me, but hey, it proved Gordon Bennington had really known his wife. It probably also proved that she would miss him for the rest of her life. I could forgive her a few temper tantrums in the face of that much pain.

I squeezed on the wound in my finger and thankfully got a little more blood. Some nights I had to reopen a wound, or make another one, to get the zombie put back. I touched my bloody hand to his forehead, leaving a small dark mark.

“With blood I bind you to your grave, Gordon Bennington.” I touched him with the edge of the machete, gently. “With steel I bind you to your grave.” I switched the machete to my left hand and picked up the open container of salt that I'd left inside the circle. I sprinkled him with salt, and it sounded like dry sleet as it hit him. “With salt I bind you to your grave, Gordon Bennington. Go and rise no more.”

With the touch of the salt, his eyes lost their alertness, he was empty as he lay back on the earth. The ground swallowed him, like some great beast had rippled its fur and he was just gone, sunk back into the grave. Gordon Bennington's corpse was back where it belonged, and there was nothing to distinguish this grave from any other. Not so much as a blade of grass was out of place. Magic.

I still had to walk the circle backwards and uncast it. Normally, I don't have an audience for that part. The zombie goes back in the grave, everyone leaves. But Conroy of Fidelis Insurance was arguing with the judge, who was threatening to cite him for contempt. And Mrs. Bennington was not in a condition to walk yet.

The police were standing around watching the show. Lieutenant Nicols looked at me and shook his head, smiling. He walked over to me as the circle went down, and I began to clean my new wound with antiseptic wipes.

He lowered his voice so the truly grieving widow wouldn't hear him. “You could not pay me enough to let that thing suck my blood.”

I half-shrugged, holding gauze over my finger so it would stop bleeding. “You'd be surprised what people pay for this kind of work.”

“It ain't enough,” he said, an unlit cigarette already in his hand.

I started to give some flip answer, when I felt the presence of a vampire, like a chill across my skin. Out there in the dark, someone was waiting. There was a gust of wind, and there was no wind tonight. I looked up, and
no one else did, because humans never look up, never expect death to fall upon them from the sky.

I had seconds to say, “Don't shoot, he's a friend,” before Asher appeared in our midst, very close to me, his long hair streaming behind him, his booted feet touching down. He was forced to make a half running step to catch the momentum of his flight, which brought him to my side.

I turned and put myself in front of his body. He was too tall for me to cover all of him, but I did my best, moving us so that if anyone shot at him they'd risk hitting me. Every policeman, every bodyguard had drawn a gun, and every barrel was pointed at Asher, and at me.

4

I
STARED AT
the half circle of guns, trying to keep an eye on everyone at once and failing, because there were too many of them. I kept my hands out from my body, fingers spread, universal sign for
I'm harmless.
I didn't want anyone thinking I was going for my own gun, that would be bad.

“He's a friend,” I said, voice a little high, but otherwise calm.

“Whose friend?” Nicols asked.

“Mine,” I said.

“Well, he ain't my friend,” one of the uniforms said.

“He's not a threat,” I said, pressing my body back enough that I could feel Asher in a long line against me.

He said something in French, everybody gripped their guns a little tighter. “English, Asher, English.”

He took a deep shuddering breath. “It was not my intent to frighten anyone.”

Not too long ago, the police were allowed to shoot a vampire on sight, just for being a vampire. It had only been five years since Addison V. Clark had made vamps “alive” again, at least to the law. They were citizens with rights now, and shooting them without just cause was murder. But it still happened now and then.

“If you shoot with me in the way, you can all kiss your badges good-bye.”

“I don't have a badge to lose.” It was Balfour, of course, being tough, but he had a big gun to go with his big talk.

I looked at him. “If you shoot, you better kill me, because you won't get a second chance.”

“Nobody's shooting anybody,” Nicols said, and I was close enough to hear him mutter, “damn it,” under his breath.

He'd moved his gun to point at the bodyguards. “Put the guns down, now.” The other policemen followed his lead, and suddenly the circle of guns was pointed away from me, and at Balfour and Rex. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding, and sagged a little against Asher.

He knew better than to have surprised a bunch of humans, especially policemen, by flying into their midst. Nothing freaked people out like seeing vampires do things that were impossible. He'd also spoken in French, which meant he was scared enough, or angry enough, to have forgotten his English. Something was very wrong, but I couldn't question him, not yet. First, get out of the line of fire, then fix the rest.

We were standing so close together that his wavy golden hair brushed against my own black curls. He put his hands on my shoulders, and I could feel the tension. He was scared. What had happened?

The police had convinced the bodyguards to put their guns away. The uniforms divided up and walked the two interested parties back to their respective cars. It left Nicols, the judge, and the court reporter standing near us. At least the court reporter wasn't still typing.

Nicols turned to me, his gun pointed downward, tapping a little against the leg of his slacks. He frowned, eyes flicking to Asher, then to me. He knew enough not to risk staring the vampire in the eyes. They could bespell you with their eyes, if they wanted to. I was immune because I was the human servant of the Master Vampire of the City. Through Jean-Claude I was safe from most of what Asher could do. Not all, but most.

Nicols was obviously unhappy. “Okay, what was so damned urgent that he had to fly in here like that?”

Damn, he was too good a cop. Even though he'd probably dealt very little with vampires, he'd made the logic jump that only an emergency would make Asher appear as he had.

His eyes flicked up to Asher again, then down to my face. “It's a good way to get yourself shot, Mr. . . .”

“Asher,” I answered for him.

“I didn't ask you, Ms. Blake. I asked him.”

“I am Asher,” he said in a voice that fell on the air like a caress. He was using vampire powers to make himself more acceptable. If Nicols figured out what he was doing, it would backfire. But it didn't.

“What's wrong, Mr. Asher?”

“Just Asher,” and the voice glided across my skin so soothing. I had some immunity to the voice, but Nicols didn't.

He blinked, then frowned, puzzled. “Fine, Asher, what the hell is the rush?”

Asher's fingers tightened minutely on my shoulders, and I felt him take a breath. I had a second to hope that he wasn't going to try an Obi-Wan
on Lieutenant Nicols. You know,
these are not the droids you're looking for.
Nicols was stronger willed than that.

“Musette has been gravely injured. I came to take Anita to her side.”

I felt the color drain from my face, my breath caught in my throat. Musette was one of Belle Morte's lieutenants. Belle Morte was the fountainhead,
le sourdre de sang
of Jean-Claude and Asher's bloodline. She was also a member of the Council of Vampires that had a home base somewhere in Europe. Every time council members had visited us, people had died. Some of them ours, some of them theirs. But Belle Morte had never sent anyone, until now. There had been some careful negotiations about Musette coming over for a visit. She was due three months from now, just after Thanksgiving. So what the hell was she doing in town a month and some change before Halloween? I didn't for a minute believe Musette was hurt. That was Asher's sneaky way of telling me how bad things were in front of witnesses.

I didn't have to pretend to be shocked, or scared. My face must have looked like someone who'd just gotten bad news. Nicols nodded, as if satisfied. “You close to this Musette?”

“Lieutenant, can we please go? I want to get there as soon as possible.” I was already looking around for my gym bag. I was glad it was already packed. My skin was cold with the thought of what Musette might be doing right now to people I cared about. The very mention of her name had always been enough to make Jean-Claude and Asher go pale.

Nicols nodded again, putting up his gun. “Yeah, go on. I hope . . . your friend is okay.”

I looked up at him, and didn't try to hide the confusion in my eyes. “I hope so, too.” I wasn't thinking of Musette, I was thinking of everyone else. So many people she could hurt if she had the blessing of the council, or at least the blessing of Belle Morte. I'd learned that council politics meant that having one member as an enemy didn't mean that the others hated you. In fact, many of the council seemed to believe the old Sicilian adage,
the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The judge murmured his thanks, and hopes for speedy recovery of my friend. The court reporter didn't say anything—she was gazing at Asher as if mesmerized. I didn't think he'd bespelled her, more like she'd never seen anything so beautiful. Maybe she hadn't.

His hair in the reflected glow of the headlights was truly gold, a curtain of nearly metallic waves flowing like a shining sea across the right side of his face. The hair looked even more gold against the dark brown of his silk shirt. The shirt was long-sleeved and untucked over blue jeans and brown boots. He looked like he'd dressed in haste, but I knew that was how he usually dressed. He made sure that the left side of his face, that most perfect of profiles was what showed to the light. Asher was a master at using light
and shadow to highlight what he wished seen, and hide what he did not. The one eye that was visible was a clear, pale blue like the eyes of a Siberian husky dog. Human beings just didn't have eyes like that. Even in life he must have been extraordinary.

You got glimpses of that full mouth, the glimmer of his other blue, blue eye. What he was careful not to show to the light was that a few inches past his eye, trailing in a line nearly to his mouth were scars. Rivulets of scars, where holy water had been poured on that most beautiful of faces. More scars ran down the right side of his body, hidden under the clothes.

The court reporter stared at him so still, as if she'd stopped breathing. Asher saw it and stiffened beside me. Perhaps because he knew that with a flick of his head he could show her the scars and watch that adoration turn to horror, or pity.

I touched his arm. “Let's go.”

He walked towards my Jeep. Normally he sort of glided, as if vampire feet never rolled on gravel but floated just above it. Tonight he moved almost as heavily as a human.

Neither of us spoke until we were inside my Jeep. We had the privacy of the darkened car, no one would overhear us.

I buckled myself in while I talked, “What's happened?”

“Musette arrived an hour ago.”

I put the Jeep in gear and began to drive carefully over the gravel around the still-parked police cars. I waved at Nicols as we went past, and he waved back, a cigarette flaring in his other hand.

“I thought we hadn't finished negotiating on how many people she could bring over with her.”

“We had not.” His voice held sorrow so thick you could have squeezed it out, tears in your cup. Jean-Claude's voice was better at sharing joy, seduction, but Asher was the master at sharing the darker emotions.

I glanced at him. He was staring straight ahead, his face very still, hiding whatever he was feeling. “Then didn't she break some treaty or law or something by invading our territory like this?”

He nodded, his hair sliding around his face, hiding himself from me. I hated to watch him hide his scars from me. I found him beautiful, scars and all, but he never quite believed me. I think he thought the attraction was part Jean-Claude's memories in my head, and part pity. There was no pity, but I couldn't deny Jean-Claude's memories. I was Jean-Claude's human servant, and that gave me all kinds of interesting side benefits. One of those benefits was getting glimpses of Jean-Claude's memories.

I remembered Asher's skin like cool silk on my fingertips, every inch of him flawless. But it was Jean-Claude's fingers that had done the touching, not mine. The fact that I remembered the touch of Asher's skin so strongly
that even now, I had the urge to reach for his hand, just to see if the memory was real, was just one of those odd things I had to live with. Even if Jean-Claude had been in the car, he wouldn't have touched Asher either. It had been centuries since they'd been part of a ménage à trois with Julianna, Asher's human servant. Julianna had been burned as a witch by the same people that had used holy water to cleanse Asher's evil. Jean-Claude had been able to save Asher, but he'd been too late for Julianna. Neither of the men had forgiven Jean-Claude for his tardiness.

“If Musette broke the law, can't we punish her, or kick her out of our territory?” I was at the edge of the cemetery now, watching for nonexistent traffic.

“If it were another master vampire come so rudely, then we would be within our rights to slay her, but it is Musette. As you are Bolverk for the werewolves, so Musette is Belle's . . .” He seemed to be searching for the word. “I do not know the word in English, but in French, Musette is the
bourreau
. She is our bogeyman, Anita, and she has been such for over six hundred years.”

“Fine,” I said, “she's scary, I accept that, but that doesn't change the fact that she's invaded our lands. If we let her get away with it, she'll try for more.”

“Anita, it is more than that. She is the . . .” he seemed to grope for a word again. That he was forgetting this many English words spoke to how frightened he was. “The
vaisseau
—why can I not think of the English for it?”

“You're upset.”

“I am frightened,” he said, “but Belle Morte has made Musette her vessel. To harm Musette is to harm Belle.”

“Literally?” I asked, as I turned onto Mackenzie.


Non
, it is more like a courtesy than magic. She has given Musette her seal, her ring of office, which means Musette in effect speaks for Belle, we are forced to treat her as we would treat Belle Morte herself. This was most unexpected.”

“What difference does this
vaisseau
make?” I asked. We were stuck at the light on Watson, staring at the McDonald's and the Union Planters Bank.

“If Musette were not Belle's vessel, then we could punish her for coming early and breaking off negotiations. But if we punish her now, then it would mean that we would do the same to Belle if she came here.”

“So? Why wouldn't we punish Belle for entering our territory so rudely, as you put it?”

Asher looked at me then, but I couldn't hold eye contact because the light had finally changed. “You do not understand what you are saying, Anita.”

“Explain it to me then.”

“Belle is our
sourdre de sang
, our fountainhead. She is our bloodline. We cannot harm her.”

“Why not?”

He looked at me full face, letting his hair fall back so that his whole face showed at last. I think he was too shocked at my question to worry about hiding himself.

“It is not done, that is all.”

“What is not done? Defending your territory against all encroachers?”

“Attacking the head of your line, your
sourdre de sang
, your fountain of blood, it is just not done.”

“And I say again, why not? Belle has insulted us. Not the other way around. Jean-Claude has negotiated in good faith. It's Musette that's been the bad little vampire. And if she comes with Belle's blessing, then Belle is abusing her status. She thinks we'll just take whatever she dishes out.”

“Dishes out?” he made it a question.

“Whatever she does to us, she thinks we'll just take it, just suck it up and take it without complaining.”

“She is right,” Asher said.

I frowned at him, then turned, still frowning, back to the road. “Why? Why shouldn't we treat any threat or insult the same?”

He ran his hands through his thick hair, pulling it back from his face. The streetlights crisscrossed his face in light and shadow. We were stopped at another light with an SUV beside us so that their window was even with ours. The woman behind the wheel glanced at us, then did a double take. Her eyes went round, and Asher didn't notice. I looked at her and she looked away, embarrassed at being caught staring. Americans are taught not to stare at anything that isn't perfect. It's like to look at it is to make it more real. Ignore it, it'll go away.

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