Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton
Asher never noticed as the light changed and we drove off. He was exposing his face to strangers, and not noticing the effect it was having. No matter how angry, no matter how sad, no matter how anything, he never forgot the scars. They dominated his thoughts, his actions, his life. For him to forget like this said more than anything how serious the situation was, and I still didn't understand why.
“I don't understand, Asher. We defended ourselves when council members invaded our territory awhile back. We hurt them, did our best to kill them. Why is this different?”
He let go of his hair and swung it back into place like a curtain. I don't think he was any less upset, it was just habit. “Last time it was not Belle Morte.”
“What difference does that make?”
, do you not understand what it means that Belle is the mother of our line?”
“Apparently I don't, explain it to me. We're going to the Circus of the Damned, right? It will take awhile to get there. You'll have time.”
.” He stared out the window of the Jeep, as if looking for inspiration in the electric lights, the strip malls, and fast food restaurants.
He finally turned to face me. “How do I explain to you what you have never understood? You have never had a king or queen, you are American and young, and you do not understand the duty owed a liege lord.”
I shrugged. “I guess I don't.”
“Then how can you understand what it is we owe Belle Morte, and how it would beÂ .Â .Â . treason to raise a hand against her.”
I shook my head. “That's a great theory, Asher, but I've dealt with enough vampire politics to know one thing. If we let her push us around, she'll see it as a sign of weakness, and she'll push and push until she sees how weak, or how strong we are.”
“We are not at war with Belle Morte,” he said.
“No, but if she thinks we are weak enough, that might be next. I've seen how you guys operate. The big vampire fish eat the little vampire fish. We can't afford for Musette or Belle to think we're little fish.”
“Anita, don't you understand, yet? We
little fish, compared to Belle Morte, we are very little fish indeed.”
hard time believing we were very little fish indeed. Maybe not big fish, but that wasn't the same thing as being very little. But Asher was so obviously convinced of it that I didn't argue.
I did call on my cell phone and leave messages around town about Musette's early arrival. Richard may have been pissed at me, but he was still the other third of our triumvirate of power; Ulfric to Jean-Claude's Master of the City, and my necromancer. Richard was Jean-Claude's animal to call, and I was his human servant, whether we liked it, or whether we didn't. I also called Micah Callahan who was my Nimir-Raj and took care of all the shape-shifters when I was off doing other things. I was so often embroiled in other things, I needed the help. Micah was also my boyfriend, along with Jean-Claude. Neither of them seemed to mind, though it still made me uncomfortable. I was raised to believe that a girl didn't date two people at once, at least not seriously.
I got only machines, and left messages that were as succinct and calm as I could make them. How do you leave phone messages like this? “Hi, Micah, this is Anita, Musette has come to town early, invading Jean-Claude's territory. Asher and I are driving to the Circus now, if you don't hear from me by dawn, send help. But don't come down to the Circus before that unless I call personally. The fewer people in the line of fire, the better.” I let Asher leave the message on Richard's machine, sometimes he erased messages from me without listening to them. It depended on how bad a mood he was in that day. Though he'd dumped me, not the other way around, he acted like the wounded party and blamed me for everything. I gave him as wide a berth as I could, but there were times, like now, when
we were probably going to have to work together to keep all our people alive and healthy. Survival took precedence over emotional pain. It had to. I hoped Richard remembered that.
The Circus of the Damned was a combination of a live action drama with frightening themes; traditional, if macabre, circus performances; a carnival complete with rides, games, corn dogs, funnel cakes; and a side show that would give even me nightmares.
Behind the Circus was dark and quiet. The calliope music that blared out front was a distant dream back here. Once upon a time I'd only come to the Circus to kill vampires. Now I used the employee parking lot. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
I was actually a few steps from the Jeep, when I realized that Asher was still sitting in the car, immobile. I sighed and went back to the car. I had to tap on his window to get him to look at me. I half expected him to jump, but he didn't. He just turned his face slowly towards me like someone in a nightmare who knows if they move too fast the monster will get them.
I expected him to open the door, but he just stared at me. I took a deep breath and counted slowly. I did not have time to hold his emotional wounds closed. Jean-Claude, my sweetie, was down under the Circus, entertaining the bogeyman of vampire-kind. Asher had told me no harm had come to anyone, yet. But I wouldn't actually believe it until I saw Jean-Claude, touched his hand. As much as I cared for Asher, I did not have time for this. None of us did.
I opened the door for him. Still, he did not move. “Asher, don't fall apart on me here. We need you tonight.”
He shook his head. “You must know. Anita, Jean-Claude didn't send me to you because I travel faster than anyone else. He sent me to get me away from her.”
“Are you not supposed to go back in?” I asked.
He shook his head again, all those golden waves swimming around his face. His eyes were their normal ice-blue in the dome light. “I am his
his second, I must go back inside.”
“Then you're going to have to get out of the Jeep,” I said.
He looked down at his hands, limp in his lap. “I know.” But he still didn't move.
I put one hand on the door and the other on the roof, leaning in towards him. “AsherÂ .Â .Â . if you can't do this, then fly to my house, hide in the basement, we've got an extra coffin.”
He did look up then. There was anger in his face. “Let you go in there alone? No, never. If something happened to youÂ .Â .Â .” He looked down again, his hair hiding his face like the curtain he'd made of it. “I could not live with the knowledge that I had failed you.”
I sighed again. “Great, thanks for the sentiment. I know you mean it, but that means you have to get out of the car now.”
A gust of wind slapped against my back, too much wind, like the wind Asher had raised in the cemetery. I went for my gun as I dropped to one knee.
Damian landed in front of me. The barrel of the gun was aimed low at his body. If he'd been a little shorter than six feet, it would have been chest high.
I let out a breath slowly and eased my finger off the trigger. “Damn, Damian, you startled me, and that can be real unhealthy.” I got to my feet.
“Sorry,” he said, “but Micah wanted you to have someone else with you.” He spread his hands wide, showing himself both unarmed and harmless. He might have been unarmed, but harmless, never that. It wasn't just that Damian was handsomeâa lot of men, dead and alive, are handsome. His hair fell in a straight, silken curtain, scarlet, like a spill of blood. It was what red hair looked like after more than six hundred years of no sun. He blinked green eyes into the lights of the streetlamps overhead. A green that any cat would envy. The eyes were three shades brighter than the T-shirt that clung to his upper body. Black slacks fell over black dress shoes. A black belt with a silver buckle completed the outfit. Damian hadn't dressed up, he'd just been wearing slacks and dress shoes. Most of the vamps that had recently come from Europe didn't feel comfortable in jeans and jogging shoes.
Yeah, he was a treat for the eyes, but that wasn't the danger. The fact that I wanted to touch him, to run my hands up the white, white skin of his arms. That was the danger. It wasn't love, or even lust. Through a series of accidents and emergencies, I'd bound Damian to me as my vampire servant. Which was impossible, I mean vamps have human servants, but humans don't have vampire servants. I was beginning to understand why the Council used to kill all necromancers on sight. Damian was glowing with good health, which meant he'd recently fed on someone, but I knew it had been a willing victim, because I'd forbidden him to hunt. He would do exactly what I said, no more, no less. He obeyed me in all things, because he had no choice.
“I knew I could get here before you went inside,” he said.
“Yeah, flying does have its benefits.” I shook my head and put up my gun. I had to rub my hand on my skirt to keep from touching him. The palm of my hand ached to caress his skin. He wasn't my lover, or boyfriend, yet I craved his touch when he was near me, in a way that felt disturbingly familiar.
I took a deep breath that seemed to shake just a little. “I told Micah not to send anyone until I'd found out what was up.”
Damian shrugged, hands up. “Micah said,
, so here I am.” He kept his
face carefully blank. There was a tension to him that said he was waiting for me to hurt the messenger.
“Touch him,” Asher said.
His quiet voice from right behind me made me jump, but at least he'd gotten out of the Jeep.
touch your servant.”
I felt heat climb up my face. “Is it that obvious?”
He smiled at me, but not like he was happy. “I remember what it was like withÂ .Â .Â . Julianna.” He said her name in a whisper that still carried on the cool autumn air. It startled me a little to hear him say her name, he avoided her name if he could; saying it, or hearing it.
“I'm Jean-Claude's human servant, but I don't feel an overwhelming need to touch him every time I see him.”
He looked up at me. “You don't.”
I started to say,
, then had to think about it. I did want to touch Jean-Claude when I saw him, but that was the sex, the rush of being a relatively new couple, wasn't it?
I frowned and concentrated on something else. “Does Jean-Claude feel the same need to touch me?”
Like I feel for Damian
“Almost certainly,” Asher said.
I frowned harder. “He hides it well.”
“Because to expose such raw need to you would have made you run away.” He touched my elbow, a light touch. “I did not mean to give away uncomfortable secrets, but we must show a united front forÂ .Â .Â . her, this night. When you touch Damian you gain power, just as when Jean-Claude touches you and Richard, he gains power.”
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. One thing I was almost certain of was that Richard wouldn't be here tonight. He hadn't come near the Circus of the Damned since we broke up. It weakened us that one-third of our triumvirate was missing. He'd promised to come to the Circus in three months' time to greet Musette, but he wouldn't come early. I would bet my life on that, and maybe I was. Who the hell knew what was inside the Circus waiting for us?
I glanced from one vampire to the other, then shook my head. We needed to get inside, and I needed to stop being squeamish. Asher needed it, too, but I couldn't control what he did, only what I did.
I touched Damian's arm, and power flared between us like a breath of wind. I slid my hand down the smoothness of his arm, using everything but the tips of my fingers. The tips of my fingers hurt when they brushed things too solidly. His breath came out in a shudder, as I slid my left hand into his
right, squeezing my fingers 'round his. As long as I didn't squeeze too hard, my bandaged fingers were fine. It felt so right to touch him. It was hard to explain, because touching him didn't make me think of sex. It wasn't like touching Jean-Claude, or Micah, or even Richard. Richard and I were feuding, but he could still affect me just by being present. When I could be in the same room with Richard and not feel my body tighten, then I'd know that I was truly out of love with him.
“I don't mind that Micah sent backup.”
I felt his hand, his arm, his body give up the tension I hadn't even realized he was holding. He smiled and squeezed my hand back. “Good.”
“You've mellowed,” a voice behind us called. We all whirled, to find Jason walking towards us over the pavement. He was grinning, proud he'd startled us, I think.
“Damn quiet for a werewolf,” I said.
He was wearing jeans, jogging shoes, and a short leather jacket. Jason was as American as I was, we liked the casual look. His blond hair was still cut short like a young executive. It made him look older, more grown-up. Somehow without the hair to trail around his face, you noticed his eyes more, blue, the color of an innocent spring sky. The color never matched the twinkle in his eye.
“A little warm for a leather jacket,” I said.
He unzipped the jacket in one smooth motion, and flashed his bare chest and stomach, still walking towards us, never missing a beat. Sometimes I forgot that Jason's day job was as a stripper at Guilty Pleasures, one of Jean-Claude's other clubs. Then there were moments like this when he managed to remind me.
“I didn't have time to dress when Jean-Claude sent me out to wait for you.”
“Why the hurry?” I asked.
“Musette has offered to share her
pomme de sang
with Jean-Claude, if he'll share me with her.”
Pomme de sang
meant literally, apple of blood, it was slang with the vamps for someone that was much more than simply a blood donor. Jean-Claude had once described it as a beloved mistress, except instead of sex you got blood. A kept woman, or in Jason's case, a kept man.
“I thought it was a faux pas to ask to feed on someone else's
pomme de sang
,” I said.
“It can also be a great courtesy and honor,” Asher said. “You may trust Musette to turn custom into torment if she is able.”
“So she's not offering up her
pomme de sang
to honor Jean-Claude, she's doing it because she knows he won't want to share Jason?”
,” Asher said.
“Great, just great. What other little vampire customs are going to come up and bite us on the butt tonight?”
He smiled and raised my hand to his lips for a quick, chaste kiss. “Many, I would think,
, very many.” He looked at Jason. “As truth, I am amazed that Musette allowed you to leave her presence without sharing blood.”
Jason's grin faded. “Her
pomme de sang
is illegal in this country, so Jean-Claude had to decline.”
“Illegal,” I said, “in what way?”
He sighed, looking decidedly unhappy. “The girl can't be more than fifteen.”
“And it's against the law to take blood from a minor,” I said.
“Jean-Claude informed her of this, which is how I come to be standing out here in the cold.”
“It's not cold,” Damian said.
Jason shivered. “That is a matter of opinion.” He huddled the still unzipped jacket around his bare body. “Jean-Claude doesn't want you to be surprised, Anita, but two of the vamps with her are children.”
I could feel my face tightening with anger.
“It's not that bad, they aren't new. At a guess I'd say several hundred years old, minimum. Even in the United States they'd be grandfathered in under the current law.”
I tried to ease some of the tension I was holding. I'd let go of everyone's hand, because I had this urge to have my hands free for weapons. There was nothing to fight, not yet, but the urge was still there.
Damian touched my arm, tentative, afraid the anger would spill over onto him, I think. My usual theory was anybody to be angry at was better than nobody to be angry at. I was trying to be better than that, more fair, but damn, it was hard.
When I didn't jerk away, or yell at him, Damian touched my hand, and his fingers light across my skin made me feel calmer. “Do you think Musette brought an underage
just to see what we'd do?”