There was a wall of our black leather-clad bodyguards–wererats, werehyenas, wereleopards–so that we couldn't see who was making a high piteous noise.
"Make a hole," I said. I was ignored.
Merle yelled, "Make a hole, people," and the bodyguards parted like a black leather ocean.
It was Stephen making the noise. He had pressed himself up against the far wall, as if he were trying to shove himself into it and out the other side. Valentina was in front of him. She wasn't doing anything to him that I could see, or even feel. But she was standing very close, one tiny hand hovering in front of him.
Gregory was pressed into a different space. Bartolome stood just in front of him, a look of near rapture on his young face. I concentrated on the vampire and I felt him feeding, feeding on Gregory's terror. I'd known a vampire or two that could cause fear in others, then feed. I hadn't known it was a power that Belle's line carried.
Stephen screamed, and the sound whipped me around to see that Valentina had laid a tiny hand on his bare stomach. She wasn't feeding on his fear. She wasn't hurting him in any way that I could see. Stephen hid his face, his long blond curls tangling across his made-up face, his naked upper body pressed into the stone, as if he thought he could make himself disappear.
Valentina slid her tiny hand down his waist, to the hips of his white leather pants, and that tore another scream from Stephen's throat. I suddenly had a clue why the twins were terrified of the children.
Bobby Lee pushed his way beside me. "Bodyguards are supposed to go first, Anita, not second."
I ignored the anger, because I knew it was frustration. We'd told the guards that we could not start violence under any circumstances, that Musette and her crew had to break truce first. As far as I was concerned this did break truce.
I started towards Stephen, and a strange vampire barred my way. I knew suddenly why our guards were simply standing there with their hands in their proverbial pockets. The vampire wasn't that tall, but he was bulky, and it wasn't just muscle. There was something to the hunch of his shoulders. The shape of his head was wrong, somehow. There was nothing specific I could put a finger on, except that he hit the radar as not human. Not human in ways different from other vampires.
He was also one of the few Black vampires I'd ever seen. Some people theorized that the same genetics that made many people of African descent immune to malaria also made them less likely to become vampires. He stood there looking at me, with his dark skin still somehow strangely pale, like chocolate ivory. His eyes were golden yellow, and the moment I looked into them, the words not humancame to mind.
Another scream tore the air. It didn't matter what the thing in front of me was, or wasn't. I didn't care.
I tried sidestepping, and the vampire moved with me, not threatening, but not letting me through either. The room was suddenly quiet, so quiet. Gregory's voice came first, unnaturally loud in the tense silence. "Don't make me do this, oh, God, don't make me do this!"
Jean-Claude was murmuring to Musette, and I heard her voice, just a word or two in French. She was basically saying they hadn't broken truce, this was only entertainment.
I felt my shoulders relax, felt the decision settle into the center of my body. I stared up at the vampire. "You are a coward, an ugly, child-abusing coward."
The vampire didn't react, he ignored me, and I didn't think it was simply bodyguard cool. I tried a few more choice insults, concerning everything from his parentage to his physical appearance, and got glazed blinks. He didn't speak English. Good.
"Bobby Lee," I said.
He leaned in close to me, trying even now to insinuate his body between me and the big bad vampire. "Yes, ma'am."
"Overwhelm him with numbers."
"Can we cut him up?"
"Then we can't overwhelm him for long."
"I only need a minute."
He gave a small nod. "I might just squeeze a minute out of this mess."
I met his eyes. "Do it."
He made a signal with his hand, and all the wererats moved at once. I sidestepped the mass of black leather, and went quickly to Valentina and Stephen.
I was talking before I'd really gotten to them. I wouldn't have much time. Micah appeared beside me. Merle and Noah, Micah's second bodyguard, were practically pressed to his back. I'd made sure all my bodyguards were busy with the vampire. If things went wrong, I wasn't sure either Merle or Noah would protect me if it meant endangering Micah. Oh, well.
"Stephen had been abused as a child. He was used for sex by his own father, and sold to other men," I said as I moved forward. I remembered what Jean-Claude had said, that Valentina hated child molesters because of her own past.
She turned that tiny heart-shaped face to me, her hand still caressing Stephen's shoulder. He had collapsed to the floor, huddled in an almost fetal position.
I was beside them now, and the noises behind me were escalating. There was going to be a fight soon, a bad one. "I swear to you that what I say is true. Look at him, look at the terror your touch inspires in him."
Stephen wasn't looking at either of us. His eyes were squeezed closed, and his tears had smeared the eye makeup to black tracks down his face. He hugged his body tight. He'd given himself up and over to what was happening, as if he were still a child.
Valentina looked down at him, and something like horror began to grow on her face. She stared at her tiny hand, as if it were something awful that had just appeared at the end of her arm.
She shook her head. "Non, non," and more French that I couldn't follow.
"He's coming," Merle said, and I felt him and Noah brace themselves in front of Micah and me.
I touched Valentina's arm, and she raised eyes glassy with shock and turned towards me. "Call off Bartolome, tell him why Gregory's afraid of him."
I felt the impact of the vampire slamming into Merle and Noah, and they pressed forward, taking the fight away from us by a few feet. Micah stood over me, ready. He could shape-shift and use claws, but he just didn't have enough body mass to stop the vampire.
Valentina's voice cut through the fighting, echoed through the room, and I realized she was using vampire powers to make herself heard, "We broke truce first, first blood is on our hands."
Musette screamed, "Valentina!"
Valentina repeated herself in French this time. The fighting slowed at Valentina's words, slowed, and began to die.
Valentina turned to face Musette, who was in a dress of all white, so that she looked like a bride. "It is truth, Musette. These two men have been abused enough by us. I will not let it continue."
"He was so afraid of me Valentina, such fear to feed on," Bartolome said, "now you've spoiled it." The slender boyish figure was dressed in nearly solid gold, old-fashioned, very seventeenth century, cloth, so that he sparkled as he moved.
Valentina spoke low and soft, in rapid French. Bartolome's face didn't pale, but he looked back at Gregory. He turned to look at me. "Is this true? Their own father?"
Gregory's sobs were loud in the sudden stillness.
"To force yourself on children is an evil thing," Bartolome said, "to use your own sons," he spat on the floor and said something in what I recognized was Spanish but couldn't follow.
"I brought them here tonight so they'd be under my protection, safe. Their father has returned recently, and is trying to meet with them again. They are here so he couldn't find them. I didn't think about the two of you."
"We would not have done this if we had been told," Bartolome said.
"Musette was told," Jean-Claude's voice seemed to fill the tension like water in a cup.
We all turned to Jean-Claude, who was standing not too far off, near the mass of bodyguards that had taken on a second vampire like the one that had kept me from Stephen. "I told her of Gregory and Stephen's past, because the moment Stephen saw Valentina and Bartolome, he said he could not feed them. That the memories it would waken would be too much for him to bear. I did tell Musette this. If I had not warned her, I would never have left Stephen and Gregory out here without Anita or myself to guard them."
All of us now turned to look at Musette. She was not wearing a wig, but had curled her hair into long banana curls so she looked like a porcelain doll, with her red lips, her carefully made up eyes, her pale skin, and the white seventeenth-century dress with its attached cape. Nothing would ever take her beauty from her, but physical beauty isn't enough to make up for sadism.
"Is this true?" Valentina asked.
"Now, ma poulet,would I do such a thing?"
"Yes," Valentina said, "yes, you would."
The two child vampires stared at Musette, stared at her wordlessly, until it was she who looked away, she who blinked big blue eyes. For a moment I saw what I thought I'd never see. Musette was embarrassed.
"Bobby Lee, capture her ass."
"Ma petite,what are you doing?"
"I know the rules, Jean-Claude, they've forfeited their safe conduct in our territory. That means that we are within our rights to put her under house arrest until her little company leaves."
"But we cannot harm her, she is too important to Belle," he said.
"Sure," I said. I glanced at Bobby Lee. "Escort her back to her room and put the cross back on the door."
He looked at me, then at Jean-Claude. "You mean, just like that, we can hurt them, jail them?"
He sighed. "Wished it worked that way with the shape-shifters."
"Occasionally, the vampires being so civilized comes in handy."
Bobby Lee grinned at me, and he and Claudia and about half a dozen others moved towards Musette. Angelito moved in front of her, blocking her from view. Her voice rang clear, though hidden, "Do not fear, Angelito, the wererats will not touch me."
Bobby Lee and Claudia were facing off with Angelito. He made them both look small. "We can do this easy, or hard." Bobby Lee said, "Move, and we all go quiet to the rooms. Stay put, and we'll hurt you, then drag your ass back to the rooms." There was an eagerness to his voice that said he was hoping for a fight. I think they all were. None of them had liked having to stand by and watch Gregory and Stephen be tormented.
"Move aside, Angelito," Musette said. "Now."
Angelito moved, his face showing how reluctant he was to do so. I was surprised that Musette was being so cooperative. She'd struck me as someone who'd have to be carried off kicking and screaming.
Bobby Lee reached out for Musette. She said, "Do not touch me." He stopped in mid-motion as if his hand had frozen in place.
"Take her, Bobby Lee," I said.
"I can't," he said, and there was something in his voice that I'd never heard before. Fear.
"What do you mean, you can't?" I asked.
He took his hand back, slowly, and cradled it against his chest, as if it had been hurt. "She told me not to touch her, and I can't."
"Claudia," I said.
The big woman shook her head. "I can't."
The first hint I had about how wrong things had gone was the real rat that waddled up to sniff at Musette's white skirts. It looked up at her with shiny black button eyes.
I looked at Musette, and her blue eyes had bled solid, so that she looked like a blind blond doll. Her face was exultant with triumph.
"Rats are your animal to call," I said.
"Didn't Jean-Claude tell you?" and the laughter in her voice said clearly, she knew he had not.
"He forgot to mention it."
"I did not know," Jean-Claude said. "Her only animal to call two centuries ago was the bat." His voice sounded empty, hiding whatever he was feeling.
"She gained the rat as her second animal about fifty years ago," Asher said.
I gave him a look. "It would have been nice to know that."
He shrugged. "It never occurred to me that anyone would actually try to put Musette under guard."
I turned back to the vampire in question. "Why didn't you use your new power to get rid of the wererat guards earlier?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise," she said, and smiled, smiled wide enough to flash fangs. She was so terribly pleased with herself.
"Fine," I said, "all shape-shifter bodyguards that don't happen to be rats, get her ass."
"Kill them," and I knew she was talking to Bobby Lee. That I hadn't foreseen. Shit.
But Bobby Lee and Claudia were both shaking their heads, and backing off from her. "You can order us not to harm you, but you can't make us hurt others. You ain't got that kind of power, girl."
The wererats were all backing away, looking confused and worried. More real rats had begun to scamper in from the far cavern. One of the problems with using a place that is naturally created is that you get nature. Nature isn't always pretty, or friendly.
It was mostly werehyenas that moved forward. Only two of the wereleopards qualified as bodyguards, and those two stayed close to Micah. The rest of our leopards had been brought along as food. Food doesn't fight, food just bleeds.
I realized something I hadn't before–there were no werewolves in the cave except for Stephen. Where had the werewolf guards gone?
Musette said something, and it wasn't in French. In fact it wasn't a language I could even guess at. The two vampires with their ivory gray skin and golden eyes moved in front of her.
Jean-Claude said, "Call them back, ma petite,I would not lose them over this."
"There's only two of them, Jean-Claude."
"But they are not what they seem."
I called everybody off and turned to Jean-Claude. "What?"
It was Valentina who came forward and answered my question. "There is a room where the servants of the Sweet Dark wait, asleep. The council members will go into that room from time to time and try to call them to their service."
I glanced at the two vampires, then back to Valentina. "These two woke," I said.
"More than these two," she said, "our mistress has called six of them awake. She believes it is a mark of her growing power."
Valentina and I looked at each other. "The Mother of All Darkness is waking, and her servants wake before her." I whispered it, but even whispered, it shivered and filled the room with dancing echoes.
"I believe so," Valentina said.
"Our mistress is more powerful than any other. The servants of our Sweet Mother wake to Belle Morte's command. It is a sign of our mistress's greatness," Musette declared it as truth, a ringing pride in her voice.
"You're a fool, Musette, the dark is waking. The fact that they are standing here is proof of that. They'll obey Belle Morte until their true mistress rises, then God help you all."
Musette literally stamped her foot at me. "You will not spoil our fun. You cannot touch me, they will not let you."
I looked at them, and frowned. "They're not just vampires, are they?"
"What do you mean, ma petite?"
I could feel them, feel a presence that shouldn't have been there. "They feel like shape-shifters. Vampires can't be shape-shifters." I realized even as I said it that that wasn't entirely true. The Mother of All Darkness was a shape-shifter and a vampire. I'd felt that.
"I thought Mommy Dearest was the first vampire, the one who made you all."
"Oui, ma petite."
"Are there any vampires on the council that descend directly from her?"
Jean-Claude thought about that for a moment. "We all descend from her."
"That's not what I asked."
Asher answered, "There is no one that can claim direct descent from her line, but she founded the council of vampires. She began our civilization, gave us rules, so that we were no longer solitary beasts, killing each other on sight."
"So she's your cultural mother, not your line's originator."
"Who can tell for certain, ma petite?She is the beginning of what we are today. She is our Mother in all ways that are important."
I shook my head. "Not all ways." I stood out of reach and said, "Someone who speaks whatever they speak translate this for me."
Valentina stepped up. "They understand French now."
"I am here, ma petite."
"Tell them that Musette has forfeited safe conduct, and we need to place her under arrest. She won't be harmed, but she won't be allowed to harm anyone else."
Jean-Claude spoke slow French, so I could understand a lot of it. I had picked up more and more over the years, but rapid speech still gave me problems. "I have told them."
"Then tell them this, too. If they don't move out of the way so we can arrest her, then we are within the rules that the Mother of Darkness laid down–to kill them for disobeying the rules."
Jean-Claude looked doubtful.
"Just repeat it," I said. I walked away a little to find Bobby Lee. He was sweating and looked unwell.
"I am sorry, Anita. We failed you."
I shook my head. "Not yet you haven't."
He looked puzzled.
"Open your leather jacket, wide."
He did what I asked.
I took his gun out of its shoulder holster and got a glimpse of a second gun in his belt. Rules said only guards could be armed. I pointed the gun at the ground, and clicked off the safety.
His eyes were very wide. I wasn't actually sure if he could let me have the gun. But he did, and I threaded my way carefully back through the crowd to the front lines.
The gun was invisible, held in the folds of my full black skirt. "What did they say, Jean-Claude?"
"They don't believe anyone here can hurt them. They say that they are invincible."
"How long have they been asleep?"
Jean-Claude asked them. "They don't know for certain."
"How do they know they're invincible?" I asked.
He asked, and they drew swords from under their white coats. Short swords, forged of something darker and heavier than steel. Was it bronze? I wasn't sure. I just knew it wasn't steel.
We all stepped back from the drawn blades, whatever they were made of. "They say that no weapon born of man can harm them," Jean Claude said.
Musette laughed. "They are the finest warriors ever created. You will not touch me with them as my protectors."
I stepped back, put myself in as balanced a stance as I could get with the high heels, and raised the gun. I aimed for a headshot, and got it. The vampire's head exploded in a wash of blood and brains. The sound of the shot seemed to echo forever, and I couldn't hear the yell I saw on the lips of the second warrior as he charged me. His head exploded like the first one had. All the hand-to-hand combat training in the world is useless if your enemy doesn't let you get close enough to use it.
Musette stood blinking, too shocked to move, I think. She was covered in blood and gore. Her blond hair and pale face were a red mask, out of which her blue eyes blinked. Her white dress was half crimson.
I aimed the gun at her startled face. I thought about it, God knows, I thought about it. But I didn't need Jean-Claude's frightened, "Ma petite,please, for all our sakes, do not do this," to make me hesitate. I couldn't kill Musette, because of what Belle Morte might do in retaliation. But I let Musette see in my eyes, my face, my body, that I would kill her, that I wanted to kill her, and that, given the right excuse, I might forget Belle's vengeance for the second it would take me to pull a trigger.
Musette's eyes filled with glistening tears. She was a fool, but not so big a fool as all that. But I had to be certain, so we didn't have these misunderstandings again. "What do you see in my face, Musette?" My voice was low, almost a whisper, because I was afraid of what my hand would do if I yelled.
She swallowed and, it was loud to my ringing ears. "I see my death upon your face."
"Yes," I said, "yes, you do. Never forget this moment, Musette, because if it happens again, it will be your last moment."
She let out a shaking breath. "I understand."
"I hope so, Musette, I really, truly, hope so." I lowered the gun, slowly. "Now, Merle can you oversee Musette and Angelito going to their rooms, right now."
Merle stepped forward, and a small army of werehyenas moved with him. "My Nimir-Ra speaks, and I obey." I'd heard him say things like that to Micah before, but never to me, or at least not like he meant it.
Merle stepped over the bodies of the dead vampires to take Musette's arm. The werehyenas looked pale, but happier. I'd just made all the muscle in the room happy, because things were simple now. We could kill them if they messed up again.
I caught Jean-Claude's expression. He was not happy. I'd made the soldiers' job easier, but not the politicians'. No, I think I'd just complicated the hell out of the political side of things.
Merle led Musette, none too gently over the bodies. She stumbled, and only a mass of werehyenas kept Angelito from grabbing her. Musette regained her balance, and the room suddenly smelled like roses.
I thought I'd choke on my own pulse as Musette raised her head and showed eyes the color of dark honey.