Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton
“Musette likes the young,” Asher said, voice still very quiet, not a whisper but close, as if he were afraid of being overheard. And maybe he was.
I looked up at Asher. Damian's fingers were still moving, lightly, over the back of my hand. “She's not a pedophile, please tell me she's not.”
He shook his head. “No, not for sex, Anita, but blood, yes, she likes them young.”
Yuck. “She cannot take blood from anyone under eighteen while she's in this country. Doing that can get you an order of execution with your name on it, and I'm the Executioner.”
“I believe that Musette was carefully chosen by Belle Morte. Belle has other lieutenants that have less objectionable habits. I believe that Musette is an ordeal in the traditional sense of the word. She has been sent by Belle to test us, especially you, I think, you and perhaps Richard.”
“Why do we get special treatment?” I asked.
“Because Belle does not know either of you of old. She likes to test her blades before blooding them, Anita.”
“I am not her blade, I'm not her anything.”
Asher had a patient look on his face. “She is
le sourdre de sang
, the fountainhead of our bloodline. Belle is like an empress, and all the master vampires that descend from her line are kings that owe her fealty. To owe fealty means to owe so many troops to the cause.”
He let out an exasperated breath. “Whatever cause the empress wishes.”
I shook my head. “You're not really making sense to me here.” Damian's hand was still playing lightly over mine. I think if he hadn't been touching me, I'd have been more upset.
“Belle considers all who descend from her line, hers, thus through Jean-Claude you and Richard belong to her.”
I shook my head and started to speak. Asher held up his hand. “Please, let me finish. It does not matter, Anita, whether you agree that you and Richard belong to Belle. It matters only that she believes you belong to her. She sees you as more weapons in her arsenal. Can you understand that?”
“I understand what you're saying, I don't agree that I belong to anyone, but I can see where Belle Morte might think so.”
He nodded, looked a little relieved, as if he hadn't been sure what he'd do if I'd continued to argue. “
then you must agree that Belle will want to test the metal of her two newest weapons.”
“Test how?” I asked.
“For one thing, by bringing an underage
pomme de sang
to America and flaunting it in front of the Executioner herself. If Musette has offered to share
pomme de sangs
, then she may also offer to share human servants. It is considered a great honor to do so.”
“Share?” I asked, instantly suspicious. Damian's fingers had sped up, but I didn't tell him to stop, because anger was tightening my shoulders, my arms.
“Share blood, probably, because most vampires take blood from their human servants. Do not worry about sex,
, Musette is not a lover of women.”
I half shrugged. “I guess that's a relief.” I frowned. “If she considers me and Richard part of herÂ .Â .Â . whatever, then what about his pack and my pard? Does Belle consider our people her people?”
Asher licked his lips, and I knew the answer before he said it. “It would be like her to assume that.”
“So Musette and company will be testing not just me, or Richard, but the rest of our people.” I made it a statement.
“It is logical to assume so,” he said.
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “I hate vampire politics.”
“She's not yelling yet,” Jason said, “I've never seen her this calm after this much bad news.”
I opened my eyes and frowned at him.
“I believe it is Damian's influence,” Asher said.
Jason's eyes flicked down to where Damian was playing gently with my hand. “You mean just touching her like that is helping her hold her temper?”
I had an urge to make Damian stop touching me, but I didn't, because I was furious. How dare anyone come into our territory and test us? How arrogant! How typically vampire. And I was tired already, tired of the games to come. If Jean-Claude would just let me shoot everyone in Musette's party tonight, it would save a lot of trouble. I just knew it would.
I did make Damian stop playing with my hand by taking his hand in mine and holding it firmly. The edge of my anger softened. I was still angry, but it was distant, manageable. Damn, Asher was right. I hated that. Hated that some new metaphysical bullshit had reached up to force me into closer personal contact with yet another vampire. Why couldn't metaphysics work just once without all the touchie-feelie crap?
Jason was looking at us, an odd expression on his face. “I think we should attach Damian to Anita for the night.”
“You think Musette is going to piss me off that badly?” I asked.
“She's not hurt anyone, yet, Anita, not raised a finger to anyone, yet everyone's terrified. I'm fucking terrified, and I can't figure out why. She's this cute little, blond thing, and she's gorgeous like a life size Barbie doll, with smaller breasts, but hey a man doesn't need more than a mouthful, right?”
“You're over-sharing,” I said.
He didn't smile at me. His face was way too serious. “Normally, I wouldn't mind a gorgeous vampire sinking fang into me, but Anita, I do not want this chick to touch me.” He looked scared all of a sudden, scared and younger even than his twenty-two years. “I do not want her touching me.” He stared up at me with haunted eyes. “Jean-Claude's promised me that Musette isn't one of those vampires who rots all over you. But it doesn't matter, I'm still so scared of her that it makes my stomach hurt.”
I reached out my free hand, and Jason came to me. I hugged him and
could feel a fine tremble running through him. He was cold, but not the kind of cold that extra clothes would fix. “We'll keep her off of you, Jason.”
He hugged me so tight it was hard to breath, and he spoke with his face against my neck. “Don't promise things you can't deliver, Anita.”
I opened my mouth to promise just that, when Asher interrupted. “No, Anita, do not promise safe passage to any of us, not yet, not until you have met Musette.”
I drew back from Jason and looked up at Asher. “If I just shoot her dead when I walk in the room what would Belle do?”
He paled, and that's a neat trick for a vampire, even one that's fed. “You cannot, you must not, AnitaÂ .Â .Â . I beg of you.”
“You know that if I killed her tonight we'd all be safer.”
He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it. “Anita,
, pleaseÂ .Â .Â .”
Jason stepped back from me and made a motion with his hands. Damian was at my back, hands on my shoulders. The moment he touched me, I felt better, not exactly calmer, not even clearer-headed. Because I was right, we should kill Musette tonight. In the short run it would save so much trouble. But in the long run Belle Morte, maybe even the whole council, would come in force and kill us. I knew that. With Damian's hands kneading gently on the tight muscles of my shoulders I could even agree with it.
“Why does Damian's touch make me feel less like killing things?” I asked.
“I have noticed that you seem to gain a measure of calm, an extra layer of thoughtfulness before you pull the trigger when he is touching you.”
“Jean-Claude isn't one bit less ruthless when I'm around him.”
“You can only gain from your servant what your servant has to offer,” Asher said. “I would say that you have helped make Jean-Claude more ruthless, not less, because that is your nature.” He looked at the vampire standing behind me. “Damian survived for centuries with a mistress that tolerated no anger, no pride. Her will and her will alone was allowed. Damian learned to be less angry, less ruthless, or she-who-made-him would have destroyed him long ago.”
Damian's hands had gone very still against my shoulders. I patted one of his hands the way you'd pat a friend that was hearing bad news. “It's alright, Damian, she can't touch you now.”
“No, Jean-Claude bargained for my freedom from her, and I will always owe him a great debt for that. But that has nothing to do with blood oaths or vampiric bonds. I owe him for bringing me out of a terrible bondage.”
“If you can keep Anita from doing anything unfortunate tonight, then you will have paid part of that debt,” Asher said.
I felt Damian nod. “Then let us go down to the underground, for I know Musette of old and I do not fear her, as much as I fear she-who-made-me.”
I turned so I could see Damian's face. “Are you implying that you fear Musette only a little less than she-who-made-you?”
He seemed to think about that for a second, or two, then slowly nodded. “I fear my old master more, but yes, I fear Musette.”
“All fear her,” Asher said.
Damian nodded. “All fear her.”
I laid the top of my head against Damian's chest, shaking my head back and forth, messing up my hair, but I didn't care. “Damn it, if you'd just let me kill her tonight, now, it would save so much trouble. I'm right, you know I'm right.”
Damian raised my face so I had to meet his eyes. “If you slay Musette, then Belle Morte will destroy Jean-Claude.”
“What if Musette does something really terrible?”
Damian looked behind me at Asher. I turned so I could watch the vampires exchanging glances. Asher finally spoke, “I would never want to tell you that under no circumstances are we to slay Musette, because there may come a time when she gives you no choice. I would not have you endanger yourself by hesitating, if that time comes. But I think that Musette will play the political game very well and will give you no excuse so awful as that.”
“If you don't handcuff Damian to Anita tonight, she's never going to make it through Musette's little show,” Jason said.
“I do not believe that will be necessary,” Asher said, “will it, Anita?”
I frowned. “How the hell should I know? Besides, I'm fresh out of handcuffs.”
Jason drew a pair out of his jacket pocket. “You can borrow mine.”
I frowned harder. “What are you doing carrying around a pair of handcuffs?” I held up my hand. “Wait, I don't want to know.”
He grinned at me. “I'm a stripper, Anita, I use all sorts of props.”
On one hand it was good to know that Jason didn't carry the handcuffs around for his own love life. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I wanted to know that handcuffs were part of his props as a stripper. What kind of shows were they doing down at Guilty Pleasures these days? Wait, I didn't really want an answer to that question either.
We all trooped to the back door of Circus of the Damned. We didn't use Jason's handcuffs, but I did end up walking down all those stairs holding Damian's hand. There was a growing list of people that walking hand in hand with I would have found romantic or titillating. Damian wasn't on the list, more's the pity.
EEP UNDER THE
Circus of the Damned were what seemed like miles of underground rooms. They had been the home of St. Louis's Master of the City, whoever that happened to be, for as long as anyone could remember. Only the huge warehouse above ground had changed. Jean-Claude had modernized the underground, redecorated some of it, but that was all. It was still room after room of stone and torches.
To soften the stone look, Jean-Claude had used huge gauzy drapes to make a sort of tent for his living room walls. The outside was white, but once you parted the first set of hangings the “walls” were silver, gold, and white. Jason had reached out to part the drapes, when Jean-Claude pushed through. He motioned us all back, a finger to his lips.
I swallowed my greeting. He was wearing skin-tight leather pants tucked into thigh-high boots, so it was hard to tell where the pants left off and the boots began. The shirt was one of his typical shirts, something sort of 1700s, with mounds of ruffles at sleeves, and neck. But the color of all that silk was something I'd never seen him in. A vibrant blue somewhere between royal and navy. The color made his midnight eyes bluer than ever. His face was as always flawless, breathtaking. It was, as always, like some wet dream come to life, too beautiful to be real, too sensuous to be safe.
My heart was hammering in my throat. I wanted to fling myself on him, to wrap myself around him like a blanket. I wanted all those black curls to sweep along my body like I was being caressed by living silk. I wanted him. I almost always wanted him, but tonight, I WANTED him. With everything that was happening and about to happen, all I could think of was sex, sex with Jean-Claude.
He glided towards me, and I held out a hand so he wouldn't touch me. If he laid so much as a finger on me, I wasn't sure what I'd do.
He looked puzzled, and I heard his voice in my head, “What is wrong,
I still didn't have the trick of talking mind-to-mind down pat, so I didn't try. I just held up my left hand and pointed at my watch. It was ten to midnight.
Like Cinderella, I needed to be home by midnight every night. I'd told my coworkers that it was a lunch break, and it was, sometimes I even got food. But what I had to feed every twelve hours didn't have much to do with my stomach. No, lower places, definitely lower places.
Jean-Claude's eyes went wide. In my head, he said, “
, please tell me you have fed the
I shrugged. “Twelve hours ago.” I didn't bother to whisper; the vampires behind the curtains would hear it, so I used a normal tone of voice. It wasn't like I was going to be able to hide the
from them anyway. The
was one of the side effects of being Jean-Claude's human servant. In another age, Jean-Claude would have been considered an incubus, because he could feed on lust. Not just feed upon it, but cause others to lust after him. It was a way of making more of what you needed. In an emergency, he could feed off of lust and forgo blood for a few days. It was very rare for a vampire to have a secondary power like this. Damian's master had been able to feed off of fear. She'd been what they call a night hag, or mora.
Belle Morte, of course, held the
. She had used it for centuries to manipulate kings and emperors. Jean-Claude was one of the few of her bloodline to inherit this particular power. And I was, to my knowledge, the only human servant to ever inherit it from anyone.
first awoke in a vamp, it controlled them just like the blood lust, then gradually they learned to control it. Or that was the plan. Since I'd had it, I'd fought like hell so that I only had to feed every twelve hours or so. The feeling didn't have to involve intercourse, but there did have to be sexual contact. All those old stories about succubi and incubi killing people by loving them to death were true. I could not feed off the same person every time. Micah let me feed off him. Jean-Claude had been waiting to share the
with me for years, though he'd thought it would be him doing the feeding, not me. I'd been forced to make Nathaniel, one of my wereleopards, into my own version of a
pomme de sang
. Embarrassing as hell, but it beat the heck out of molesting strangers, which was entirely possible if you fought the
. It was a hard taskmistress just like Belle Morte.
The plan for tonight had been to go to my house and meet with Micah, but instead I was here at the Circus. That wasn't bad in itself, because
Jean-Claude was always willing. Unfortunately, we had big bad vampires in the next room, and I didn't think they'd wait while we had hot monkey sex. Call it a hunch, but I suspected Musette would be sympathetic.
The trouble was, the
wasn't sympathetic either.
The men were all standing around with that,
oh, my god
, silence thick on the ground. We were all looking at Jean-Claude to solve this. “What do we do?” I asked.
He looked lost for a moment, then he laughed, that touchable, caressable laugh. It made me shudder, and only Damian grabbing me kept me from falling. I waited for the
to spread to him like the contagious disease it could be, but it didn't. The moment he touched me, the
receded like the ocean pulling back from the shore. I felt light and clean, clear-headed. I could think again. I clutched Damian's arm like it was the last piece of wood in the ocean.
I turned wide eyes to Jean-Claude. He was looking very serious. “I feel it too,
We knew through practice that if Jean-Claude concentrated on controlling the
, he could help me control it as well. But when he wasn't concentrating, the fire burned through us both like some overwhelming force of nature.
I felt Damian's sorrow at my cool touch, felt it like a taste across my tongue, as if rain could have a flavor.
I knew that Damian wanted me, in that good ol'-fashioned way that had very little to do with hearts and flowers, and everything to do with lust. He craved me the way he did blood, because to be without me was to die. Damian was over six hundred years old, but he'd never be a master vampire. Which meant that literally his original mistress had made his heart beat, his body walk. Then Jean-Claude had been his animating force, and then, accidentally, I'd stolen him from Jean-Claude, and now it was my necromancy that made his blood flow, his heart beat.
I'd been horrified to find that I had, in effect, a pet vampire. I'd tried to ignore what I'd done, run from it. I'd been running from so many things. But I knew that Damian wasn't one of those things that I could ignore.
If I cut myself off from Damian, he would first go mad, then he would die in truth. Of course, long before he faded away, the other vampires would have had to execute him. You couldn't have a six-hundred-year-old vampire gone stark raving mad running around the city slaughtering people. It was bad for business. How did I know what would happen if I denied Damian? Because I hadn't known he was my vampire servant for the first six months after it had happened. He had gone mad, and he had slaughtered innocents. Jean-Claude had imprisoned him, waiting for me to come home, waiting for me to live up to my responsibilities instead of running from them. Damian
had been one of my object lessons that you either embraced your power, or others paid the price.
I looked at Jean-Claude. He was still beautiful, but I could look at him without wanting to swarm all over him. “This is amazing,” I said.
“If you would have let Damian touch you like this months ago, we would have discovered it sooner,” Jean-Claude said.
There was a time, not that long ago, that I would have resented being reminded of my own shortcomings, but one of my new resolutions was not to argue about everything. Picking my battles, that was the goal.
Jean-Claude nodded, walked over to me, and held out his hand. “My apologies for the earlier indiscretion,
, but I am master now, no longer pawn of the fire that burns us both.”
I stared at the hand, so pale, long-fingered, graceful. Even without the
's interference, he was always fascinating in ways that I had no words for. I took his hand, while still clutching Damian's arm. Jean-Claude's fingers closed around mine, and my heart stayed calm. The
did not raise its lascivious head.
He raised my hand to his mouth, slowly, touched his lips to my knuckles. Nothing happened. He risked a caress of his lips, sliding along my skin. It did make me catch my breath, but the
did not rise.
He stood upright, my hand still in his. He smiled, that brilliant smile that I valued, because it was real, or as close to real as he could come. He'd spent centuries schooling his face, his every motion to be courtly, graceful, and give nothing away. He found it hard to simply react. “Come,
, come let us meet our guests.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
He wrapped my arm through his and looked at Damian. “Take her other arm,
, let us escort her inside.”
Damian settled my hand on the smooth, muscled skin of his forearm. “With pleasure, master.”
Normally, Jean-Claude didn't like his vamps calling him master, but tonight we'd be formal. We were trying to impress people who hadn't been impressed by anything in centuries.
Asher stepped forward to get the drapes, Jason went to the other side, and they held the drapes aside for us so we could enter without having to bat at the drapes. There are reasons that wall-hangings over doorways fell out of favor.
The only downside to having an attractive vampire on each arm was that I couldn't go for my gun quickly. Of course, if I had to draw a gun as soon as we went through the door, then the night was going to be a bad one. Bad enough that we might survive this night, but not the next.