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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

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Jean-Claude was quiet for a time, but finally he told the truth. “We are not currently together in that way.”

“See, you refuse to touch him, as she refuses to touch him.”

I loosened Damian's arms enough so I could move more easily. “Not exactly,” I said, “sorry, but it's my fault that they aren't a couple.”

She turned to me. “What do you mean, servant?”

“You know, even if I was, like a maid, I know enough about polite society to know that you don't call a maid, simply, maid. You don't call a servant, servant, not unless you truly have never interacted with servants.” I folded my arms across my stomach, looking puzzled on purpose. Damian's hands stayed lightly on my shoulders. “Is that it, Musette? Are you not an aristocrat, after all? Is it all pretend, and you simply don't know any better?”

Jean-Claude gave me a look that she couldn't see.

“How dare you!” Musette said.

“Then prove you are noble, address me at least like someone who has truly had servants.”

She opened her mouth to argue, then she seemed to hear something that I couldn't hear. She let out a long breath. “As you like, Blake, then.”

“Blake is fine,” I said, “and what I mean is that I'm not entirely comfortable with this bisexual thing. I won't share Jean-Claude with another woman, and definitely not with a man.”

Musette did that head to the side movement again, as if she'd spied the worm she intended to eat. “Very good, then Asher has no tie to any of you. He is merely your second.”

I looked from one vampire to another, only Jason looked as confused as I felt. The vamps were acting like a trap had been sprung, and I didn't see it yet. “What's going on?” I asked.

Musette laughed, and it wasn't anywhere near as good a laugh as Jean-Claude or Asher were capable of. It was just a laugh, a vaguely unpleasant one, at that. “I am within my rights to ask for him as my gift for tonight,” she said.

“Wait,” I said, and Damian's hands tried to pull me back in against him, but I wasn't moving this time. “I thought you agreed with Belle that Asher isn't pretty enough to have sex with anymore.”

“Whoever said anything about sex?” Musette asked.

Now I really was puzzled. “Why else would you want him for the night?”

She laughed then, head back, very unladylike, a bray of sound like a hound baying. I hadn't said anything that funny, had I?

Jean-Claude's quiet voice came into the silence that followed that laugh. “Musette's interests run to pain more than sex,
ma petite
.”

I looked at him. “You don't mean dominance and submission where you have safe words, do you?”

“There is no word in any language that I have ever heard screamed that would dissuade Musette from her pleasures.”

I licked my suddenly dry lips. They lie about that moisturizing lipstick. Your lips still dry out when you get scared. “Let me test my understanding. If Asher was your lover, or mine, or anyone's, then he'd be safe from her?”


Non, ma petite,
Asher would only be safe if he belonged to you, or me. Lesser powers cannot protect those they love.”

“But because we're not doing him, he's free meat?” I asked.

He seemed to think about that for a time. “That is accurate enough,
oui
.”

“Fuck,” I said.


Oui, ma petite, oui
.” A thread of tiredness had finally broken through his empty voice.

I looked at Asher, and he was hiding behind that shining hair again. What was I supposed to say, that if I hadn't been so squeamish this wouldn't be happening? I'm sorry I have issues with my boyfriend doing other men. I'm sorry I have issues with me doing other men. Why was I always being made to feel guilty because I wasn't having sex with more people? Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around?

Musette held her hand out to Asher. He stood there for a second or two, then he took her hand. He looked back once at Jean-Claude, a shine of eyes in all that hair. Jean-Claude never reacted, as if he were trying to pretend he wasn't there.

I moved forward, only Damian's fingers digging into my shoulders brought me up short. “We are not letting her do this,” I said.

“She is Musette, and Belle Morte's lieutenant.” Jean-Claude's voice had gone small and distant.

Musette didn't take him through the drapes into another room. She stopped a few yards away, not even that close to the “walls.” She turned Asher to face her, then she drew a knife from her white skirts, and plunged it into his stomach before anyone could react. Asher could move faster than the eye could follow, but he made no move to protect himself. He just let her sink the knife home, grinding it until the hilt met his skin, and she couldn't push it in any farther.

I had my gun out of the holster, and Jean-Claude grabbed my hand. “The knife is not silver,
ma petite,
when it is removed he will heal almost instantly.”

I looked up at him, straining to raise the gun, and making some progress. Thanks to his own vampire marks, I was stronger than I should have been. “How do you know it's not silver?”

“Because I have played this game with Musette before.”

That made me stop trying to bring the gun up. I went quiet in his hands. Their hands, I should have said, because Damian's hands were plastered to my shoulders. Only Jason hadn't joined in trying to hold me back. From the look on his face I think he wanted to help me, not hinder me.

I looked past Jean-Claude to see Asher still standing, his hands to his stomach where blood blossomed across the skin of his hands. The brown of the shirt was dark enough to hide the first rush of blood. Musette put the knife to her delicate mouth and licked down the blade.

I knew through Jean-Claude's memories that vampire blood gives no sustenance. You cannot feed from the dead, not in that way.

Asher looked at us. “It is not silver,
ma cherie,
it will not kill me.” His breath was cut off in his throat, as Musette plunged the knife in a second time.

The world swam in streamers of colors. I closed my eyes for a second and spoke in a low, careful voice. “Let go of me, Damian.” The hands at my back dropped away instantly, because I'd given a direct order. I opened my eyes and met Jean-Claude's gaze. We stared at each other, until his hand dropped, slowly, away. His voice echoed like a whisper in my mind, “You cannot kill her for this.”

I put my gun back in its holster. “Yeah, I know.” I couldn't kill her, because she wasn't trying to kill Asher, but I would not stand here and watch him be tortured. I would not, could not, do it. I'd once thought that arm wrestling vampires was a bad idea. She was stronger than me, even with Jean-Claude's marks, but I was also betting she wasn't trained in hand-to-hand fighting. If I was wrong, I was about to get my ass kicked. If I was right, well, we'd see.

9

M
USETTE MADE NO
move to protect herself. Angelito stayed with the other men across the room. It was as if neither of them saw me as a threat. You'd think with my reputation, vampires would stop underestimating me. But dead or alive, there are always fools.

I could feel myself smiling, and I didn't need a mirror to know that it wasn't a nice smile. It was the smile I got when I'd been pissed off too much and I'd finally decided to do something about it.

Musette made a big show of licking the knife clean, while Asher stood in front of her and bled. She licked it like a kid with a Popsicle on a hot day—got to lick carefully, but quickly, or it drips down your hand, and you lose some of it. Her eyes were all for me, the show was all for me. It was as if Asher didn't matter at all to her. Maybe he didn't.

She had actually turned back to plunge the blade home a third time, when I was within touching distance. I don't know what she thought I planned to do, because she seemed totally surprised when I grabbed her hand. Maybe she expected me to fight like a girl, whatever the hell that means.

I pushed my shoulder into her, and she tottered backwards on her high heels. I hooked my heel behind hers, and foot swept her leg out from under her. She fell backwards, because I helped. I rode her body down to the ground, turning the knife in her hand with mine, and when she hit the floor, I plunged the knife home. I leaned my knee into the back of our hands and felt the blade come out the back of her body.

I whispered to her, “It's not silver, you'll heal.”

She screamed.

I didn't so much hear Angelito move as feel him. “If you come over here,
Angelito, I will force this blade up into her heart, and it won't matter if it's silver, or if it's not. I'll shred her heart before you can cross the room.”

The far drapes opened and vampires spilled into the room, some ours, some hers. I don't know what would have happened, but I heard the far door open, behind the drapes. I heard a lot of movement, and I almost tore the blade up through her, not at all sure the metal was strong enough to take the strain. With a better blade I could have dug for her heart, with this one I wasn't sure.

A split second before I tried it, I heard a sound that raised the hair on my arms. The sound of hyenas hunting. It's a hell of a lot creepier than the howl of a wolf, but that joined with it. I knew the moment I heard the noises that it was our calvary coming, not Musette's.

I didn't look behind, because I didn't dare take my eyes off the vampire I had pinned to the floor. But I felt the crowd surge behind me, felt the neck-ruffling power of shape-shifters filling the room like an electric cloud.

The touch of so many of them with such tension called my own beast like a snake in my gut to writhe and flow inside my body. I wasn't a shape-shifter, but through Richard and my tie to the wereleopards, I had the closest thing a human being could have to their very own private beast.

It was Bobby Lee, who was actually a wererat, that came forward enough for me to see him. His southern drawl always sounded so out of place in a fight. “You planning to kill her?”

“I'm thinking about it.”

He knelt on one knee beside us. “You think that's the smart thing to do?” He glanced up at the vampires on the other side of the room.

“Probably not.”

“Then maybe you should oughta ease up there, before you gut her.”

“Micah send you?” I asked, eyes still on Musette's pain-filled face. I was happy to see her hurting. I didn't usually enjoy causing pain to anyone, but I just didn't mind hurting Musette.

“He didn't send any of your leopards, cause you told him not to, but he contacted the other leaders, and here we are. If you're not going to kill her, girl, you should probably let her go.”

“Not yet,” I said.

He didn't ask again, but stood up near us, like the good bodyguard he was.

I spoke directly to Musette, but I made sure my voice carried. “No one comes into our territory and harms our people. No one, not the council, not even
le sourdre de sang
of our bloodline. Everyone tells me that when I speak to you I'm speaking to Belle herself, well, here's the message. The next one of her people to harm one of our people is dead. I will take their heads, their hearts, and I'll burn the rest.”

Musette found her voice, at long last, though it was strained, and a little afraid. “You would not dare.”

I leaned into the blade, a little bit more, made her grunt with the force of it. “Try me.”

The pain in Musette's face faded, vanishing like someone wiped it away, and her blue eyes began to darken. I rode the knife into her while Belle's pale brown eyes swirled to the surface, the dark overwhelming all that blue, until Musette's eyes were the color of poisoned honey.

I'd seen Belle do this trick once before, but it had been in a mirror, and my own eyes. Fear drove through me like a blade, chilling my skin, bringing my heart into my neck like a trapped thing. Fear can either chase back the beast, or call it. This fear calmed it, dampened it, so that that rising power sank away, leaving me alone, and scared. It wasn't a vampire trick that made me want to let her go and run away. I'd felt Belle move through my own body, and I never wanted her to be able to do it again. If I took Musette's heart with Belle inside her, could I kill them both? Probably not, but God, it was tempting.

Belle's voice came without a trace of fear, or strain. If the knife hurt her too, it didn't show. “Jean-Claude, have you taught her nothing?” The voice was not Musette's, it was deeper, richer, a low contralto. The irreverent thought that she'd give really good phone sex crossed my mind.

Jean-Claude started gliding towards us. He motioned for Damian to follow, and the red-haired vampire fell into step behind him. Jean-Claude came to kneel beside us and motioned Damian to do the same. They both bowed their heads, carefully out of reach. “Musette overstepped the bounds for a visitor to my lands. You would not tolerate such treatment of one of your own people. I have learned well the lessons you taught me, Belle Morte.”

“What lesson is this?” she asked.

“Tolerate nothing. No hint of disobedience. No breath of revolution. No insult is tolerated. I admit that I forgot this in the rush of fear that Musette brought with her. The thought of insulting you, even indirectly was unthinkable, but I am no longer your creature. I am a Master of the City now. I am my own creature, and Asher is mine now. I will be what you brought me up to be, Belle, I will truly be your child. I will let
ma petite
be as ruthless as she likes, and Musette will either learn better manners, or she will not be coming home to you ever again.”

She sat up. With the knife plunged through her body, she sat up, and I could not keep her pinned down. The movement pushed me backwards enough to brush against Damian. He touched my back, and when I didn't tell him not to, he touched my shoulder.

Belle even dropped Musette's hand away from the knife, so that my hand held it in place. But she showed no pain, in fact she ignored me to look at
Jean-Claude. I began to feel silly with my bloody hands and the knife still stuck in Musette. No, not silly, superfluous.

“You know what I would do to you if you harmed her,” Belle said.

“I know that according to our own laws, the laws you helped enact, that no one is allowed to simply enter a territory without negotiating safe passage. Musette and her people are here three months before we gave them permission to enter, which means, in effect, they are outlaw, and have no rights, no safety. I could slaughter them all and council law would be on my side. You have too many people on the council that fear you, Belle, they would think it a good joke.”

“You would not dare,” she said.

“I will not allow you to harm Asher, not anymore.”

“He is nothing to you, Jean-Claude.”

“You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, magnificent in your lust; I am humbled by your power, awed by the political maneuvering that you do so effortlessly. But I have been long away from you, and I have learned that beauty is not always what it seems, that lust is not always better than love, that power alone is not enough to fill the bed or the heart, and that I don't have your patience for the politics.”

She reached out a slender hand towards him. “I showed you love such as no mortal ever could.”

“You showed me lust, mistress, sexual appetite.”


Oui, amour,
” she said, her voice sultry enough to cause goosebumps on my arms.

Jean-Claude shook his head. “
Non,
lust, not love, never love.”

A look passed over her face, like a badly designed mask moving liquid under Musette's skin. It reminded me uncomfortably of watching the beast glide under the skin of a shape-shifter before it springs forth. If she changed into Belle completely, I was trying for her heart while I had the chance.

“You loved me once, Jean-Claude.”


Oui
, with all my heart and all my soul.”

“But you do not love me now,” her voice was soft, there might even have been a trace of loss.

“I have learned that love can grow without the touch of sex, and that sex does not always lead to love.”

“I would love you again,” she whispered.


Non
, you would possess me again, and love is not about possession.”

“You speak in riddles,” she said.

“I speak truth as I have come to know it,” he said.

Those pale honey brown eyes turned to me. “You have done this. Somehow, you have done this.”

I was beginning to feel positively silly with the knife still in Musette, but
I was afraid to take it out, because I was half expecting Belle to stand up and say,
aha, that was what I was waiting for
. So I kept the blade in and tried to think what to do. Staring into those pale brown eyes it was hard to think, hard not to either run away or try and kill her. If I can't run from my fears, I have a tendency to try and kill them. It's a strategy that's worked so far.

“What have I done?” I asked, and my voice showed the strain. Damian's hands kneaded gently at my shoulders, not so much a massage, as a reassurance that he was there, I think.

“You have turned him against me,” she said.

“No,” I said, “you did that all on your own, centuries before I was born.”

That liquid mask moved under Musette's skin again. If I touched her face I thought I'd feel things underneath that should not have been there. “I took him to my bed, what more does anyone desire of Belle Morte?”

“You showed him what your love was worth when you cast Asher out of your bed.”

“What does Asher's fate have to do with Jean-Claude's love?”

That anyone who knew the two of them could ask that was amazing. That the vampire that brought them together could ask that was both frightening and sad.

“You need to leave now, Belle,” I said.

“Why, what have I said to upset you?”

I shook my head. “The list is too long, Belle, we don't have all night, let me hit the highlights. Go away, for now, please, just leave. I'm tired of trying to explain color to the blind.”

“I do not understand what that means.”

“No,” I said, “you don't.”

She stared up at me. Her hand came up as if to touch my face. “If you touch me,” I said, “I'll see if Musette can survive without her heart.”

“Why is the touch of my hand worse then the touch of our bodies one against the other?”

“Call it a hunch, but I don't want you touching me on purpose. Besides it's not your body, it's Musette's. Although I'm not sure about that, so call me cautious, and just don't touch me.”

“I will see you again, Anita, I promise you that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“You don't seem to believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you, I just can't get too worked up over it.”

“Worked up?” she made it a question.

“She means she cannot get too upset about your threat,” Jean-Claude said.

Belle looked back at me. “Why can you not?”

“I've had a lot of vampires threaten me, I can't panic every time.”

“I am Belle Morte, member of the council on high, do not underestimate me, Anita.”

“Tell that to the Earthmover,” I said. He'd been a council member that had come to town once upon a time. He'd died.

“I have not forgotten that Jean-Claude slew a council member.”

Actually, I'd slain him, but why quibble? “Just go, Belle, please, just go.”

“And if I choose to stay? What will you do? What can you do?”

I thought about several options, most of them fatal to one or both of us. Finally, I said, “If you want to keep this body, fine. It's not my body. It's not even my vampire. You want it, knock yourself out.”

I leaned back from her and jerked the knife out. There was no way I was leaving a weapon on Musette. She was too likely to take the blade out and stick it in me. The blade pulling out brought a gasp from Belle that plunging it in hadn't.

She grabbed my wrist, as if to keep me from hurting her, but I should have known better. Some small, screaming part of me knew I was still kneeling on the carpet in Jean-Claude's living room, but the rest of me was in a dark, candlelit room. The bed was large and soft, mounded with pillows as if it would rise up in a soft cushioned wave and engulf me. The woman pressed into all that softness lay in a bed of her own dark hair, her eyes a solid golden brown fire, like staring at the sun through a piece of colored glass. Belle Morte stared up at me, her pale body naked. The glory of her spread before me, nothing hidden. I wanted her, wanted her as I'd never wanted anything else in my life.

I came back to myself, with a gasp. Jean-Claude held my other hand in a death grip. Damian was a weight against the back of my body. Jason stood over the rest of us as we knelt. His hands were on Jean-Claude's shoulder, and against the side of my neck, above Damian's hand. I could feel the pulse in my neck pounding against the pulse in the palm of Jason's hand.

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