Cerulean Sins (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #11)

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05.03.2019

43

I had, of course, complained about my clothes. The black velvet and blue silk seemed to be offering my breasts up like pale ripe fruits. The colors emphasized the near translucence of my skin with the undertone of blue highlights. But I knew what the blue highlights really were–blood. Blue blood inside my veins that would burst red when oxygen hit it.

Stephen had done my hair and makeup. He'd done them before, for these little get-togethers. He regularly did it for the other strippers at Guilty Pleasures. I had let him put my hair in a pile of loose curls on top of my head, so that my neck looked white and bare. Asher's bite marks stood out starkly against all that flesh.

"My neck and breasts look like they should be on a plate with a sign saying 'come and get it.'"

Stephen stepped back from applying the last bit of eyeliner. "You look lovely, Anita." He probably meant it, but his blue eyes were all for the makeup, for his work. He saw me as a canvas. He frowned slightly, did some minute adjustment near my eyes that left me blinking. He dabbed with a Kleenex then stepped back again.

He looked me over from the top of my head to the end of my chin, then nodded. "It's good."

"It's positively appetizing," Micah's voice came from the doorway. He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. The moment I saw him, I knew I'd lost all rights to bitch about what I was wearing.

The color was turquoise blue, with enough green to make his eyes blaze green. The shirt had holes at the top of his shoulder, in the middle of his upper arm, and two in the middle of his forearm. Black cord was threaded through the cloth and tied around his elbow, above and below the holes to keep the cloth from sliding around. The cuffs were wide and stiff, with shiny black buttons, with cutouts on the underside so the skin of his wrists was bare, just as the holes at his elbows left those spots bare. His skin looked very tanned, very smooth, very warm against the turquoise.

The pants matched the shirt–and not just in color. There were holes on the sides that flashed the perfect smoothness of his hip, down to glimpses of thigh. The holes probably went farther down, but black boots cut off the view just above his knee.

The pants were so tight that he really didn't need a belt, but there was a black cord threaded through the unnecessary belt loops that swung as Micah walked. He was actually almost to me when I realized there were holes on the inside of the pants legs, too.

I shook my head. "There's more holes than cloth."

He smiled at me. "I'm food, so you've got to be able to reach the blood. Jean-Claude didn't want anyone to have an excuse to undress anyone."

I glanced at Jean-Claude. "He's not feeding any of these people."

"Non, ma petite,he is ours, and ours alone, but we do not want to have to undress him either. If all of us keep our clothes firmly in place, then so will they. It would be a faux pax of gigantic proportions if they undress their food and we do not. It is our house, and our rules."

Put that way it was hard to argue, but I still wanted to. Then I looked at Micah's face more closely. "He's wearing eye makeup." I got off the chair that I'd sat in while Stephen fixed me and walked closer to Micah. He was wearing more than just eye makeup, but it was all so artfully done that you didn't see it at first.

"I could not resist those eyes," Jean-Claude said, "they deserved to be decorated."

Micah's hair was tied completely back from his face in a bun that was a graceful mix of French braid and sheer art. "Where did all the curl go?" I asked.

"It has been blow dried straight," Jean-Claude said. He came and almost touched Micah's hair, to show how lovely it was. "He did not protest anything that we did to make him so pretty." Jean-Claude gave me a look, out of his own black-lined eyes. "It was a refreshing change."

Micah blinked those amazing eyes that someone's art had made even more amazing. "You don't like it?"

I shook my head. "No, I like it. I mean, you're beautiful." I shrugged. "I don't know, it's just a very different look for you." I turned to Jean-Claude. "I've never seen you in this much makeup."

"Belle Morte broke me of wishing to see myself this way." He was shielding as he said it, as if whatever memory went with those words was nothing he wanted to share.

"So why pretty Micah up like this?"

"You don't like it," Micah repeated.

I frowned. "That's not it. Why do it now? What do we gain by having you look like this, because don't try and tell me there's no purpose to it." I turned to include Asher in his chair across the room in the look I gave Jean-Claude. "Neither of you would go to this much trouble tonight without a reason. I've heard nothing but both of you complaining that we don't have enough time to get everyone presentable for the banquet." I gestured at Micah. "This took a lot of time that could have been used elsewhere. So I'm asking, both of you, what gives?"

They exchanged a look, then Asher looked studiously at the floor. He pretended to be studying his perfectly manicured fingernails, but I wasn't fooled.

I turned back to Jean-Claude. "Out with it," I said.

He shrugged. It wasn't so much graceful as almost embarrassed. "Musette was finally forced to give us the complete guest list. She has withheld only three names, because they are part of the gift from Belle."

"So three mystery guests, what does that have to do with why you dolled Micah up?"

"One of the vampires coming tonight has an eye for a beautiful man. Both Asher and I fell afoul of him, more than once."

"And," I said.

"To flaunt such delectable meat in front of his table, yet not allow him a taste or a touch, pleases us."

"So you're being petty," I said.

Jean-Claude was suddenly angry, it showed in his face, filled his eyes with blue fire. "You do not understand, ma petite.Belle has sent Paolo to torment us. He is to remind us what we were, and how helpless we were. We went to anyone that Belle gave us to, anyone. She did not do it casually, but if our bodies in another's bed would gain her something she wished, then she used us, and let others do the same."

He stalked in a tight circle, the black coat floating out around him like dark wings. "The thought of sitting at the same table with Paolo again sickens me, and Belle knew that it would. I loathe him in a way that I do not wish to describe. But we cannot harm him, ma petite.Belle has sent him to torment both of us by his mere presence. He will smirk and leer and remind us with every look, every touch of his hands on someone else, what he once was allowed to do to us."

Jean-Claude came to stand in front of me, his anger beating in the air like invisible flames. "But this we can do, ma petite,we can flaunt the bounty at hand. We can show Paolo what I am able to touch, and Asher is able to touch, but Paolo cannot have. Paolo is one of those men who always wants what others have. It eats at his soul if he cannot have, in every way, whomever he desires." He touched fingertips down my neck and left a trail of heat on my skin that made me gasp, almost pain, almost pleasure. "I want Paolo to suffer, if only a little, because I do not have it within my power to make him suffer a great deal."

I looked up into Jean-Claude's angry, angry face, and sighed. "It's going to be like this all night, isn't it? Belle's only sent people that make you uncomfortable, or that you hate, or hate you."

"Now, ma petite.We fear Musette, and Valentina. I believe Bartolome came because he is bored. Paolo is the first name that truly incenses me."

I touched Jean-Claude's face, holding that anger against the palm of my hand. His eyes bled back to normal, or as normal as they ever get. I looked past him to Micah. "You okay with fang-teasing some male vampire?"

"As long as I don't have to come across, I'll play."

That made me smile. "If Micah's okay with it, so am I." I cradled Jean-Claude's face between my hands, but was trying for eye contact not a kiss. "But let's keep our eye on the ball, revenge is not why we're here tonight."

He put his hands over mine and held them both against his face. "We are here tonight because Belle Morte is le sourdre de sangof our line, and we cannot refuse her right to send visitors our way. But make no mistake, ma petite,Musette and her company are here to have revenge upon us."

"Revenge for what?" I asked.

Asher answered from across the room, "Revenge for us leaving her, of course."

I looked at him. "Why of course?"

They exchanged another look, one that I couldn't read. It was Jean-Claude who said, "Because Belle Morte believes herself to be the most desirable woman in the world."

I gave him raised eyebrows. "She's beautiful, I'll grant you. But the most beautiful woman in the world, come on! I mean it depends on what you consider beautiful. Some people like brunettes, some people like blonds."

"I said the most desirable, ma petite,not beautiful."

"I don't get the difference."

He frowned at me. "Men have killed themselves when she exiled them from her bed. Wars have been fought between rulers who were driven mad at the thought of any other man sharing Belle Morte's favors."

It was my turn to frown. "Are you saying that once you've had Belle Morte that no one else will do?"

"That is her belief."

I looked at him. "You and Asher left, twice apiece."

"Exactement ma petite,do you not see?"

"Not really."

"If we left her bed, if there is any touch that we prefer to hers, then perhaps she is not the most desirable woman in the world."

I thought about that for a second. "So, this entire expedition is to punish you two?"

"Not entirely. I believe Belle does want to test the ground, as it were, before she visits herself."

"Why does she want to visit at all?"

"It will be something political, of that you can be sure," Jean-Claude said.

"So punishing the two of you this time is what, an extra treat?"

They started to do another of those looks, but I touched Jean-Claude's face, forced him to look at me. "No, no more mysterious looks, just say it."

"Belle is the most desirable woman in the world, her entire power base, her entire self-image is built on that. She must find a way to understand why we left, and why we prefer to stay away, even now."

"So," I said.

"You are being too subtle," Asher said, pushing himself to his feet and striding over to us.

"Fine, you tell me," I said.

"Just as Belle saw Julianna as a threat, so she will see you. But we hope to convince her that it is not another woman alone that keeps us entertained, but a man. Belle never did see men as competition, not as she did a woman."

"So that's why you've prettied Micah up."

"And others," Asher said.

I looked at Jean-Claude. "Others?"

He had the grace to look embarrassed, but it didn't work completely, his eyes looked pleased. "If Musette can report to Belle that I have a harem of men, then Belle will cease to be worried about you."

I shook my head. "I don't think so, Jean-Claude. I think she's got a taste of me now. She's either going to be afraid of me, or attracted to the power."

"I believe she marked you once to torment me, ma petite.She does not truly want you as her human servant, but she is angry with me, angry with you for having me." He shook his head. "She thinks like a woman, ma petite,and not a modern one. You think more like a man, so it is hard to explain to you."

"No, I think I've got an inkling. You're going to try and convince Belle's people that you didn't dump her for any woman, but for a lot of men."

"Oui."

"And if the sight of a lot of gorgeous men torments Paolo, too, so much the better."

He smiled, but it left his eyes hard and unpleasant. "Oui, ma petite."

I didn't say it out loud, but Belle Morte wasn't the only one who rarely did anything without having more than one motive.

44

The banquet was in one of the inner rooms of the Circus. One I'd never seen before. I knew that the place was huge and I'd seen only a fraction of it, but I hadn't realized I'd missed a room this size. It was literally cavernous, because it had originally been a cave, a huge, towering, space that water had carved out of solid stone over a few million years. There was no water now, only rock and the cool air. It was the way the air tasted, the way it touched your skin that let you know somehow that all this dark splendor was nature's handy work, not man's. I don't know what the difference between natural caves and man-made ones is, but the air feels different, it just does.

I expected torches for the night, but was surprised to find that there was gas. Gas lamps placed around the room, chasing back the dark. I asked Jean-Claude when he'd installed the gas, and he said that some bootleggers had done it during prohibition, that the cavern had been a speakeasy. Nikolaos, the Master of the City before Jean-Claude, had let the bootleggers pay rent for the space. Her vampires had also fed on the drunken revelers. It was a good easy way to feed without getting caught. Since the prey was already breaking the law, it wouldn't go to the police, to say where the vampire attack had happened.

I'd never been in a room that was lit entirely by gas lamps. It had that soft edge of firelight, but it was steadier and burned cleaner. I'd half expected there to be an odor of gas, but there wasn't. Jean-Claude informed me that if I smelled gas it would mean there was a leak, and we should probably run like hell. Okay, what he actually said was we should leave as quickly as possible, but I knew what he meant.

The banquet table was both beautifully–and oddly–arranged. It gleamed with golden flatware, and the gold picked up the delicate gold pattern in the white fine-boned china. There were gold napkin rings around white linen napkins. The tablecloth was triple layered, one long and white that nearly dragged the floor, a gold edge of leaves and flowers embroidered around its hem. The middle layer was a delicate gold lace. The top was a different layer of gold–white and gold–as if someone had taken gold paint and dabbed it sponge-like on white linen.

The chairs had white and gold cushioned seats and richly carved backs in a dark, dark wood. The table sat like a gleaming island in the midst of the gaslit dark. But two things confused me. First, there were way more golden utensils at each place than I knew what to do with. What the hell do you use a tiny two-tined fork for anyway? It was set at the top of the plate, so it was either for seafood, salad, dessert, or something I hadn't thought of. I was hoping for seafood or dessert, since I thought I knew which fork was for salad. Having never been to a formal vampire banquet, I tried not to speculate on other possible uses for the two-tined fork.

Secondly, there were a number of complete place settings on the floor. Each setting had a white linen napkin spread under it, like miniature picnics. The place settings on the floor were spaced between the chair settings, so there was room to pull the chairs in and out. It was . . . odd.

I stood there in my black and royal blue gown with its faint sparkles of deep blue, tapping the toe of my black high heel, trying to figure out why there were plates on the floor.

Jean-Claude glided through the long black drapes that covered the entrance between this room and the smaller adjacent chamber. Everyone was mingling in the other room. I hated mingling under any circumstances, even at normal dinner parties. But tonight was like small talk, combat style. Everything had double or triple meanings. Everyone was trying to be subtly insulting. All so polite, so back-stabbing, so painful. My small talk skills were pretty limited, and among Musette and her crew, I was unarmed. I'd needed a break, before I started breaking things for real. At least Musette's underage pomme de sangwas missing from tonight's festivities. We'd been told the girl had been sent back to Europe because her presence seemed to upset me so. My guess was Musette just didn't want to lose her toy, if things went badly.

Asher slipped through all that blackness like a golden vision, but he didn't glide after Jean-Claude, he hurried. Musette wasn't entirely ready to believe that Asher was truly ours. Since I wasn't a hundred percent sure he was either, it was hard for her not to smell a lie on me, even though it wasn't exactly a lie. I should never have left Asher on his own, but I was tired. Tired of vampire politics. Tired of digging out from problems that I didn't start, and didn't truly understand.

"Ma petite,our guests are asking after you."

"I'll just bet they are."

Jean-Claude did that long, slow, graceful blink that usually meant he was trying to figure out what I'd meant with a bit of slang or sarcasm. I used to think the blink was to show off his impossibly long eyelashes, but trust him to make something enticing out of what for anyone else would have been an irritating habit.

"Musette really is asking after you," Asher said, and he imitated her voice, "Where is your new beloved? Has she abandoned you so soon?" His pale blue eyes flashed white, showing that edge of panic that was just below the surface.

"It is not like you to wander off on such an important and potentially dangerous occasion. What is the matter, ma petite?"

"Oh, I don't know, an international terrorist following me around, the vampire council back in town, an evening of some of the most politely vicious small talk I've ever heard, Asher being his usual temperamental self, one of my friends and favorite policemen having a nervous breakdown, a serial killer werewolf on the loose in my town, oh, and the fact that Richard and his wolves haven't arrived yet, and no one's answering their phones. Pick one." I knew the smile on my face wasn't pleasant when I finished. It was a challenging smile. It said why wouldn't I be uptight?

"I do not believe anything has happened to Richard, ma petite.'"

"No, you're afraid he's going to take a pass on the whole evening. That would make us look damned weak."

"Damian flies almost as well as I do," Asher said, "he'll find them, if they are close."

"And if they're not? I mean, Richard is shielding so hard that neither Jean-Claude nor I can reach him. He doesn't usually do that without a reason, usually a pissy one."

Asher sighed. "I do not know what to say about your wolf king, but I know that he is not our only problem." He looked at me, and there was a stubborn set to that handsome face. "I am not being temperamental."

I didn't bother to debate him. Asher was temperamental, he just was. "Fine, but the problem is that Musette can smell this lie. She asks me if you're mine, I say, yes, she doesn't believe me. She doesn't believe me because I don't quite believe it. You aren't totally mine. It's too new to feel that real, and that's what she's picking up on. She's practically chased me around the room finding new ways to ask if I'm fucking you, and even that caught me." I shook my head, and missed the feel of my hair against my skin. I touched the back of my bare neck and it felt vulnerable.

"If it is only for their visit, I understand," Asher said.

"No, no, damn it, it's that we haven't had intercourse."

Asher looked at me, then raised his gaze to Jean-Claude. "In this she is very American. If you have not had intercourse, you have not had sex with ma petite.It is a very American mind-set."

"I covered her back in my seed, and that does not count?"

I blushed so suddenly that I felt dizzy. "Can we please change the subject?"

Jean-Claude touched my shoulder, and I jerked away. I desperately wanted comforting, and thus I couldn't let him do it. I know it made no sense, but it was still true. I'd stopped trying to talk myself out of myself and begun to try and work with what I had. I was a mess of contradictions. Wasn't everybody? Though admittedly, I might be a teensy bit more contradictory than most.

I walked away from him, from both of them, but that also took me away from the lights, closer to the waiting pools of darkness. I stopped. I didn't want to walk into the dark. I spoke half turned around, as if I didn't trust my back to the dark completely. "Why are there plates on the floor?"

Jean-Claude moved towards me, graceful in those amazing boots, the dark coat swirling around him, the embroidery catching the light here and there like faint blue stars. The blue shirt seemed to float from the darkness, bringing his face to my almost painful attention, emphasizing how truly lovely he was. Of course, he'd probably planned for exactly that effect.

His voice seemed to fill the cavern like a warm whisper, "Be at peace, ma petite."

"Stop that," I said, and realized I turned my back on the greater darkness, turned towards him like a flower turns to the sun, turned because I couldn't not look at him. This wasn't vampire powers, it was the effect he had on me, had almost always had on me.

"Stop what?" he asked, voice still warm and peaceful, like a comforting blanket.

"Trying to use your voice on me. I'm not some tourist to be soothed by pretty words and a good delivery."

He smiled, then gave a small bow. "Non,but you are as nervous as a tourist. It is not like you to be so . . . jumpy." The smile had vanished, replaced by a small frown.

I rubbed my hands up and down on my arms, wishing the silk and velvet wasn't there. I needed to touch my own skin, with my own hands. The cave was around fifty degrees, I needed the long sleeves, but I needed the skin contact more. I looked up to the towering ceiling above us, and the darkness that seemed to press down from it, hovering over the gaslight, pressing at the edges of the glow like a dark hand.

I sighed. "It's the dark," I said, at last.

Jean-Claude came to stand next to me; he made no immediate move to touch me, because I'd drawn away once. I'd taught him caution. He looked up briefly at the ceiling, then back to study my face. "What of it, ma petite?"

I shook my head and tried to put it into words, while I huddled into myself, as if I could hold in the warmth. I was wearing a cross. The silver chain traced down my neck into the generous cleavage revealed by the low-necked dress. There was a piece of black masking tape over the silver cross itself, so that it wouldn't spill out at the wrong moment. After the earlier visits from Belle and Mommy Dearest, I was not going anywhere without a holy item on me. I wasn't sure what that might mean to having sex with Jean-Claude, or any vampire, but for the short term, I wasn't sure that any sex was worth the risk.

Jean-Claude touched my hand gently. I jumped, but didn't move away. He took that as an invitation. He'd always taken anything that wasn't an outright rebuke as an invitation. He moved to stand behind me, putting his hands over mine where I still gripped myself. "Your hands are chilled." He pressed me in the circle of his body, arms sliding around me, pinning me gently against him.

He rested his cheek against the top of my head. "I ask again, ma petite,what is the matter?"

I settled into the circle of his arms, relaxing by inches against him, as if my very muscles couldn't stand the thought of giving in to anything soft, or comforting. I ignored the question and asked again, "Why are there plates on the floor?"

He sighed and held me close. "Do not be angry, because there is nothing I can do to change this. I knew you would not like it, but Belle is old-fashioned."

Asher came to join us. "Her original request was to put humans on large trays, like suckling pigs, bound and helpless. Then everyone could have picked a vein and enjoyed."

I turned my head against the velvet of Jean-Claude's coat, so I could stare at Asher's face. "You're joking, right?"

The look on his face was enough. "Shit, you aren't." I rolled my head up so I could look at Jean-Claude. He obligingly looked down at me. His face was more unreadable, but I was pretty sure Asher hadn't lied.

"Oui, ma petite,she suggested three humans would be enough for all of us."

"You can't feed this many vampires off of three people."

"Not true, ma petite," he said, softly.

I kept looking at him, until he looked away. "You mean drain them dry from multiple bites."

"Yes, yes, that is what I mean." He sounded tired.

I forced myself to settle back into his suddenly tense arms, and sighed. "Just tell me, Jean-Claude, I believe you that Belle insisted on it, whatever it is. I believe you that she wanted worse things done, just tell me."

He bent his head so that he whispered against my hair, his warm breath touching my ear. "When you have steak, do you invite the cow to sit at table with you?"

"No," I said, then turned my head to the side so I could see his face. The look in his eyes was enough. "You don't mean . . ." He did mean. "So who's sitting on the floor?"

"Anyone who is food," he said.

I gave him a look.

He spoke quickly to the look in my eyes. "You will be seated at table, ma petite,just as Angelito will sit at table."

"What about Jason?"

"Pomme de sangswill eat from the floor."

"So Nathaniel, too." I said.

He gave a small nod and let me see how worried he was about how I'd take all this.

"If you were this worried about how I'd react, why didn't you warn me ahead of time?"

"In truth, there has been so much happening that I forgot. This was once very normal for me, ma petite,and Belle holds with the old ways. There are older still than she, who would not even allow the food to sit on the floor." He shook his head, hard enough that his hair touched my face, smelling of his cologne and that indefinable something that was simply his scent. "There are banquets, ma petite,that you would not wish to see, or even know of. They are indeed horrible."

"Did you think they were horrible while you were participating in them?"

"Some, oui." His eyes filled with that wistful look, that lost innocence, centuries of pain. It didn't happen often, but sometimes in his eyes I could glimpse what he'd lost.

"I won't argue if you tell me there's worse out there than this arrangement. I'll just believe you."

He gave me a look of disbelief. "No arguing?"

I shook my head and leaned back into his chest, held his arms around me like a coat. "Not tonight."

"I should leave this miracle alone, but I cannot. You have taught me bad habits, ma petite.I think I must ask, once more, what is wrong?"

"I told you, it's the dark."

"You have never been afraid of the dark before."

"I'd never met the Mother of All Darkness before." I said it softly, but her name seemed to echo into the darkness, as if the darkness itself were waiting for the words, as if the words could conjure her to us. I knew it wasn't true. All right, I was pretty sure it wasn't true, but it made me shiver just the same.

Jean-Claude tightened his grip around me, pulling me tight in against his body. "Ma petite,I do not understand."

"How could you?" came a voice behind us.

Jean-Claude turned me in his arms as he moved to face the voice, making it a dance-like movement, ending with my left hand in his right. His coat and my skirt swirled out and settled in a cloth whisper around us. Our outfits were designed to move and flow like some goth version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Asher walked quickly to us, and even the way he moved was wrong. His posture was still perfect, but there was a hunching to it, like a dog that expects to be hit. He hurried in those white boots, hurried, and though still beautiful, there was little grace to his movement. There was too much fear in him to allow for grace.

Jean-Claude held out his hand, and Asher took it. We stood there, the three of us holding hands like children. It should have been absurd, considering the vampire we faced, but it wasn't Valentina that we wanted to huddle together against. I think for all three of us, it was the night in general. It was everything in the next room, and what it represented.

Valentina stood in front of the drapes. She looked like a tiny doll dressed all in white and gold so that she, like Asher, would match the table settings. Everyone in Musette's party matched the table, which meant that that, too, had been something they negotiated. Somehow clothes wouldn't have been high on my list, but then that was me.

Valentina's outfit was a miniature seventeenth-century dress with the skirt flared out to either side so that she was shaped like an oval. The skirt was very full and gave glimpses as she walked of tiny gold slippers and numerous petticoats. She even had a white wig that hid her brunette curls from view. The wig looked too heavy for that slender white throat, but she walked as if the jewels and feathers and powdered hair weighed nothing. She had absolutely perfect posture, but I knew that was from the corset that was under the dress. Those dresses don't fit right without the proper undergarments.

There had been no need for powder to make her skin white, rouge and red lipstick had been enough. Oh, and a black beauty mark in the shape of a tiny heart near that rosebud mouth. She should have looked ridiculous, but she didn't. She was like a sinister doll. When she flipped open her gold and lace fan with a sharp snap, I jumped.

She laughed, and only the laughter was childlike, a hint of how she might have sounded long ago.

"She has stood on the brink of the abyss and stared into it, and the abyss has looked back, has it not?"

I had to swallow hard to be able to answer, because my pulse was pounding, and I was suddenly shivering. "You talk like you know."

"I do." She walked towards us, gliding and graceful. She wore the body of a child, but she didn't move like one. I guess centuries of practice can teach anyone to glide.

She stopped farther back than an adult-sized person would, so she didn't have to strain to look up at me. I'd noticed she did that while everyone was mingling. "Once I was truly the child this body pretends to be. I wandered away from everyone, exploring as children do." She looked up at me with enormous brown eyes. "I found a door that was not locked. A room with many windows . . ."

"And none of them looked outside," I finished for her.

She blinked up at me. "Exactement.What did the windows look out upon?"

"A room," I said, "a huge room." I looked up at the cavernous roof. "Like this one, but bigger, and the windowed room sits above it all."

"You have not been in our inner sanctum, of that I am sure, but you speak as if you stood where I stood."

"Not physically, but I have stood there," I said.

We looked at each other, and it was a look of shared knowledge, shared terror, shared fear.

"How close did you get to the bed?" she asked.

"Closer than I wanted to," I whispered.

"I touched the black sheets, because I thought she was only sleeping."

"She is sleeping," I said.

Valentina shook her head, solemnly. "Non,to say she sleeps is to say any vampire sleeps. It is not sleep."

"She's not dead, not dead the way the rest of you are when you sleep."

"True, but she is not asleep either."

I shrugged. "Whatever you call it, she's not awake."

"And for that we are truly grateful, are we not?" She spoke softly enough that I leaned in towards her to hear the words.

"Yes," I whispered back, "we are."

She reached up and touched my neck, and I flinched, not from the touch, but from the tension of our words. She didn't laugh this time. "Only you and I have been touched by that dark."

"Belle Morte, too," I said.

Valentina looked a question at me.

"Belle has called me into some kind of dream when the Darkness rose around us."

"Our mistress has not informed us of this," Valentina said.

"It only happened today, early today," I said.

"Hmm," Valentina said, folding her fan tight, running it through her tiny hands, each tiny nail done in gold. "Musette should know of this." She gazed up at me, and there was so much more of her than there should have been. She would always appear to be eight, a petite eight, but her eyes held an adult's awareness, and more.

"There are some unexpected guests that are about to make their appearance. I cannot spoil the surprise, for that would anger Musette, and through her, Belle, but I think that you and I will be equally unhappy with them. I think that you and I more than any will see it for the disaster it is."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Jean-Claude will explain their presence to you, when they appear, but only you and I will truly grasp why the mere fact that they are here is bad, very bad."

I frowned. "I'm sorry, but you've lost me."

She sighed and unfurled her fan with a practiced movement. "We will speak again after the surprise." She turned to walk back towards the curtain.

I called after her. "What saved you from the dark?"

She turned, the fan folding away again, as if playing with it had become habitual. "What saved you?"

"A cross, and friends."

She gave a small smile that left her eyes as empty and gray as a winter storm. "My human nurse."

"Did she see what was on the bed?"

"No, but it saw her. She began to shriek. She shrieked, and shrieked, and stood there, staring at nothing, until she fell down dead. Her body lay there for a very long time because no one wished to enter the room."

Valentina opened her fan with a snap. I managed not to jump this time. "The smell got to be quite atrocious." She smiled, and made a joke of it, a vicious joke, but she couldn't make her expression match the humor. Her eyes were haunted, no matter how cruel the smile. She left through a flick of black drapes.

All three of us visibly relaxed when the drapes swung shut, and we shared a glance. "Why do I think I'm not the only one too tense to pull this off tonight?" I said.

Asher kept Jean-Claude's hand, but moved around so he was facing both of us. "Musette smells a lie, and she will not let it rest."

"Valentina and I just finished talking about the mother of all bad vampires, and you're already back to harping on Musette."

Jean-Claude squeezed my hand, and sighed.

"The Sweet Dark will not take me tonight, Anita. It will not pin me to a table and unfasten my clothes and force itself upon me. Musette will."

"You're in our bed now, rules say she can't have you."

"But she smells that it is a lie."

"I can't help that the fact that we haven't had intercourse comes up on vampire radar as lying about fucking you."

"Musette wishes it to be untrue, ma petite.She is searching for anything that will allow her more room to play. Your doubts, Asher's doubts, give her that room."

I closed my eyes and counted slowly to ten. When I opened them, they were both giving me their best blank faces. It was like looking at two superb paintings, suddenly made three-dimensional, very lifelike, but not alive.

I squeezed Jean-Claude's hand, and he squeezed back. "Don't go all strange on me, guys. I'm having enough trouble tonight."

They both blinked, one long graceful blink, and they were "alive" again. I shivered and took my hand back from Jean-Claude. "That is so disturbing," I said.

"Pourquoi, ma petite?"

"Why. He has to ask, why." I shook my head, and crossed my arms. I had to cradle my breasts, because, thanks to the bra and the neckline, there was no way to cross my arms over my chest.

Damian came through the black drapes. His scarlet hair glowed against the cream and gold of his old-fashioned clothes. He could have stepped out of a seventeenth-century painting, complete with white hose below knee-length pants and those odd high-heeled buckle shoes the noblemen wore. Only his hair, loose and blazing, was untamed, and recognizably him. He had not volunteered to be one of Jean-Claude's pretty men. Damian was a touch homophobic. Boy, had he fallen in with the wrong bunch of vampires.

He strode across the carpet and went to one knee in front of me. For tonight we were being formal, so I didn't argue, and offered him my left hand. He took it, laying a kiss on my fingers. "The Ulfric and his party are almost here."

"Where have they been?" Jean-Claude asked.

Damian looked up, giving us the full force of his grass green eyes. He almost looked underdressed without eye makeup. I think almost every other person at this little party was wearing makeup. The corner of his mouth gave the smallest twitch, and I realized he was trying not to laugh. "They had to find someone to repair the Ulfric's hair. No one in their pack was a hairdresser."

"What does this mean, 'repair his hair'?" Jean-Claude asked.

I sighed. "You know how you forgot to tell me about the plates on the floor?"

"Oui."

"I forgot to mention that Richard cut his hair off. I don't mean like go-to-the-beauty-parlor-and-get-it-styled. I mean hacked it off with scissors, himself."

Jean-Claude looked almost as horrified as I had. "His beautiful hair."

"Yeah," I said, "I know." I'd done my best not to think about it. I mean, Richard had said it, we weren't dating. It wasn't any of my business what length his hair was. My major concern was that sane happy people don't hack their hair off at home with scissors. Cutting your hair like that is usually a substitute for hurting yourself in other more permanent ways. Any counselor will tell you that.

Damian spoke, still on one knee, still holding my hand lightly. "They found someone to salvage what they could, but he is all but shorn."

Jean-Claude looked ill, which for a vampire is a neat trick. "Is he well enough for all this tonight?" I wasn't sure who he'd asked it of, maybe everyone, maybe no one. But Jean-Claude had grasped how bad a sign it was that Richard was "mutilating" himself.

"I'm not sure any of us are," I said.

He gave me an unfriendly look. "We are stronger than this, ma petite."

"Strong, yes, but tired. I guess, I can only speak for myself, but if Musette comes up to me one more time and asks me about Asher, I'm going to smack her."

"That is against the rules, ma petite."

"What would make her stop nagging us about Asher? Does she have to see us fucking in front of her to back off?"

Damian was stroking my hand in his. I jerked back from him. "I don't want to calm down. I'm pissed, and I have a right to be pissed."

"A right, oui,but not the luxury, ma petite."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Anger without purpose is luxury tonight, ma petite,and we cannot afford it. We do not wish to give Musette any reason to cross the boundaries that we have so carefully negotiated."

He was right, and I hated it. "Fine, fine, you're right, you're always fucking right about the political shit. But then what are we going to do to make Musette stop asking about Asher?"

"I have one possible solution," Jean-Claude said.

The solution had to wait, because Micah came through the curtain with Nathaniel and Merle in tow.

Nathaniel's outfit was mostly cream colored strips of leather that covered almost nothing. A white thong covered his front, but left his buttocks bare. He had cream colored boots that were over the knee but open in back, so you got glimpses of his legs to mid-calf when he walked away from you. There was a three-inch heel on the boots, and Nathaniel knew how to make the heel work for him. I knew he wore less than this almost every night at Guilty Pleasures, but it bugged me, until Nathaniel assured me he was fine with it. Stephen had styled Nathaniel's auburn hair, looping it back and over itself, to form the largest French braid I'd ever seen. French braids just aren't meant to hit the knees. The delicate eye makeup was almost overwhelming to his violet eyes, making them almost painfully, shockingly beautiful. Lipstick had shaped his mouth and made it kissable, even from a distance. He would have looked like a girl, except that the outfit left no doubt that the body it was almost covering was very male.

Merle was wearing a variation of what all the bodyguards would be wearing: black leather. Black leather pants over black boots with silver points, a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket. Merle had had his own outfit. He was six feet plus with gray-streaked hair that fell to his shoulders and a mustache and partial beard that were both a darker gray than his hair. He looked like what he was–a longtime biker and hard case. At the moment he was livid, so angry that his beast was rolling in the air around him like an almost visible presence.

"What happened?" I asked.

Merle growled, "If that bastard touches my Nimir-Raj one more time, I'm going to tear off his arm and shove it up his ass."

Jean-Claude and Asher said in unison, "Paolo."

"Yes," Merle growled.

Micah looked amused. I don't think it bothered him, but not much bothered Micah. He was one of the most easygoing people I'd ever met. I guess he had to be to survive as my boyfriend.

"It isn't bothering me, Merle."

"That's not the point," the big man said. "It's insulting. It shows he has no respect for us."

"It's Paolo," Asher said, "he has no respect for anyone, except Belie."

"Let me guess," I said, "Paolo's pawing Nathaniel, too."

Merle gave a low, skin-crawling growl.

The curtains opened, and Bobby Lee stuck his head and shoulders in. "Unless we can just start tearing people up, you better get back in here."

We exchanged a look, sighed almost as a group, and we got back in there.