Belle-Morte looked at me, out of Musette's face, and I think I stopped breathing. All I could hear for a moment was the hammering of my own heart in my head. Sound returned with a rush, and Belle Morte's voice slid out of Musette's mouth.
"I am vexed with you, Jean-Claude."
Merle kept trying to drag her across the room. Either he didn't know the shit had hit the fan, or one vampire was all the same to him. He was about to learn otherwise.
"Release me," she said in a calm voice.
Merle dropped her arm as if she'd burned him. He backed away from her the way that Bobby Lee had backed away from Musette, with a look of pain, holding his arm as if it hurt.
"The leopard is her animal to call," Jean-Claude said, and his voice carried into yet another heavy silence. But I didn't have time to think about silence, because Belle was talking, saying awful things.
"I have been gentle up 'til now." She turned and looked back at the two dead vampires. "Do you know how long the council has been trying to wake up the Mother's first children?"
I think we all thought it was a rhetorical question, one we were afraid to answer.
She turned back to face us, and something swam underneath Musette's face, like a fish pushing against water. "But I awakened them. I, Belle Morte, awakened the Mother's children."
"Not all of them," I said, and immediately wished I'd kept my mouth shut.
She gave me a look that was so angry it burned, and so cold, it made me shiver. It was as if all that had ever been of rage and hatred were in that one look. "No, not all of them, and now you have taken two away from me. What ever shall I do to punish you?"
I tried to speak around the pulse in my throat, but Jean-Claude answered, "Musette broke the truce, and would not concede it. We have obeyed the law to the letter."
"It is true," Valentina said. The crowd of black leather-clad grown-ups moved so the child vampire could come and stand near Musette/Belle. Valentina kept out of reach, though. I noticed that.
"Speak, little one."
Valentina told the story of how Musette had withheld information about the child molestation and what had happened because of it. Musette's body turned to look at Stephen and Gregory. Gregory was holding his brother, rocking him. Stephen wasn't looking at anyone, or anything. Whatever his staring eyes saw, it was nothing in this room.
Belle turned back to us, and again there was that sense of another face swimming underneath, but this time I saw it like a ghost superimposed over Musette's face. Ghostly black hair bled over the blond, a face with more cheekbones, more strength to it, showed for a moment, before it sank back into the softer beauty of Musette.
"Musette did break truce first. I concede that."
Why was it that my heart rate didn't slow a single beat when she said that?
Her next words came out in a purring contralto, a voice like fur to caress the skin and ease across the mind. "You have acted within the law, and now so shall I. When Musette and the rest come back to me, Asher will come with them."
"Temporarily," Jean-Claude said, but his voice held doubt.
"Non,Jean-Claude, he will be mine as of old."
Jean-Claude took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "According to your own laws, you cannot take someone permanently away from those to whom he, or she, belongs."
"If he belonged to anyone, that would be true. But he is no one's pomme de sang,no one's servant, no one's lover."
"That is not true," Jean-Claude said, "he is our lover."
"Musette communicated with me, told me that she smelled your lies, your weak effort to keep Asher from her bed."
Belle was able to smell lies, too, if the lie was something she understood. No vampire could tell truth from falsehood if it was about something they didn't understand. If a vampire had no loyalty, they couldn't discern it in others–that sort of thing. I was going to try and give her something she could understand.
"I didn't think it was a weak effort," I said.
Jean-Claude gave me a look, and I shook my head at him. He stepped gracefully aside, because he knew I had a plan, but his voice whispered through my head, "Be careful, ma petite."
Yeah, I'd be careful.
Belle turned her borrowed body to look at me. "So you admit it was an attempt to lie to Musette."
"No, I said it wasn't weak. I found the whole thing embarrassing, exciting, wonderful, and terrifying. Being in bed with Asher wasn't exactly what I thought it would be."
"You haven't lied, yet," she said, and her voice was so rich, it was as if I should have been able to get down on the ground and roll myself up in it like some soft, warm, suffocating carpet. Her voice was enticing like Jean-Claude's and Asher's could be, but also frightening.
"We took Asher to our bed, and by European standards we are lovers."
"By European standards," she looked confused, and her face pushed out against Musette's. This time it was like a mask. The sense of something larger, more dangerous pushing against Musette's face. I knew through Jean-Claude's memories that Belle wasn't physically much bigger than Musette, but physical size wasn't all there was to Belle Morte. "I do not understand what that means, 'European standards'."
Jean-Claude answered, "Americans have a most peculiar idea that only intercourse between a man and a woman constitutes true sex. Anything else does not truly count."
"I taste truth, but I find it most odd."
"As do I, but it is still true." He gave that Gallic shrug.
I added, "What Musette kept smelling wasn't a lie, it was my hang-up that Asher and I hadn't had true intercourse. Trust me, we were all naked and sweaty in the bed."
She turned that strange half-face to me. It would have looked more frightening if her face hadn't been surrounded by Musette's long blond banana curls. The Shirley Temple look was not meant for Belle. "I believe you, but by your own admission you are not lovers, not truly by your own standards. Thus, Asher is mine."
"You don't care about the truth, I forgot that," I said.
She narrowed those honey-gold eyes at me. "You have forgotten nothing, little one. You do not know me."
"I have Jean-Claude's memories, here and there. That's enough. They should have taught me better than to use truth."
She walked towards me, and as she did, her body seemed to fold over Musette's, so that she wasn't just a face, but a dress of dark gold, a longer arm, a pale hand with copper-colored nails. She moved like a ghost draped over Musette, so that you got glimpses of the other woman underneath. It wasn't perfect, Belle Morte wasn't really physically there, but it was close, and it was unnerving.
Jean-Claude had moved so that he touched me from behind by the time Belle came to stand in front of me. I leaned back against him, because she had marked me once, and that was without any physical touch. I leaned against Jean-Claude and fought the urge to draw his arms around me like a shield.
Belle stood so close that the edge of Musette's full skirt brushed my feet. Belle's ghostly dress seemed to bleed over my shoes, creep up my ankles. I couldn't breathe.
Jean-Claude moved us backwards, out of reach of that creeping power. I pulled his arms around me tight. Screw it, I was scared.
"If truth will not work with me, what will, ma petite?" Belle asked.
I found my voice, it was breathy, scared, but there was nothing I could do about it. "I am Jean-Claude's 'ma petite,'no one else's."
"But whatever he has is mine, so you are my ma petite."
I decided to let that argument go, for now. There were other more important ones I needed to win. "You asked if truth doesn't work with you, then what does?"
"Oui, ma petite,I did ask."
"Sex or power," I said, "that's what works for you. You prefer both together, if you can get it."
"Are you offering me sex?" She purred at me, and the sound made me shudder and push myself harder against Jean-Claude. I didn't want to play with Belle, not in any way.
"No," I said, in almost a whisper.
She reached out towards me, that slender white hand with its dark copper nails, and that afterimage of Musette's hand underneath, as if Belle's graceful hand were a strange metaphysical glove.
Jean-Claude moved us back again, a fraction of a fraction of an inch, so that those long-nailed fingers missed my cheek by a breath.
Belle looked at him, her long black hair beginning to move around her body like there was a wind blowing around her. There was no wind, only Belle's power.
"Are you afraid that one touch and I will take her from you?"
"No," Jean-Claude said, "but I know more of what your touch can do, Belle Morte, and I am not sure that Anita would care for it."
He'd used my real name, he almost never did that. Perhaps because Belle was using my nickname, he didn't want to.
Her anger burned the air in front of us, like a real fire, stealing the oxygen from the lungs, making it impossible to breathe, unless you took that heat into your lungs. Then they would sear, and you would die.
The heat filled her words, so that I half expected them to be burned into the very air. "Did I ask if she would care to be touched?"
"No," Jean-Claude said, his voice was very still, and I felt him sinking away, even with his arms wrapped around me, he was sinking away, folding into that quietness that he went to when he hid from everything. I had a glimpse of that quiet place, and it was quieter than the place I went when I killed. There wasn't even static there, only complete silence.
The emptiness filled with the smell of roses, sweet, so sweet, cloying, choking. I gasped, and all I could taste was roses. Jean-Claude caught me, or I would have fallen. The perfume of roses filled my nose, my mouth, my throat. I couldn't swallow past it, couldn't breathe anything but perfume. I would have screamed, but I had no air.
I heard Jean-Claude yelling, "Stop this!"
Belle laughed, and even choking to death, the sound rode through my body like a knowledgeable hand.
A hand grabbed mine, and a breath of air clawed its way down my throat, fighting its way through Belle's power. Again if I'd had enough air, I'd have screamed. Micah's face hovered over mine. Micah's hand in mine.
"Non, mon chat,you are mine, as is she." Belle knelt beside us, reaching out to touch Micah's face.
Jean-Claude moved us all backwards, so that we collapsed on the floor at her knees, but we were out of reach again, barely. But barely was good right then.
Belle's eyes burned with honey fire, and the nails of her hand bled copper flames on the air, as she reached for Micah. Jean-Claude tried to help us crawl away, but we'd fallen in a heap of long skirts, long coats. Death by fashion.
Belle touched Micah's face, trailed those glowing claws down his cheek. The smell of roses closed over my head like sweet poisoned water, and I was drowning again.
Another hand on me, and this touch had nothing warm in it, it didn't call the ardeur,it didn't call my beast, it called something colder and more certain of itself. My necromancy came welling up and it burst over my skin, my body, and I stared up into Belle's burning eyes, and I could breathe. My throat was sore as hell, but I could breathe.
I moved my eyes enough to see Damian holding my other hand. His eyes were wide, and I could feel his fear, but he was there, kneeling beside me, facing the power that was Belle Morte.
Belle drew Micah's face towards hers. Her skin seemed to be made up of white light, black flame hair, the glittering molten metal of fingertips and eyes. Her lips glowed like a slash of fresh blood.
Micah's hand convulsed in mine, so strong it hurt, and the pain helped, made my thoughts clearer, harder-edged. He made a small sound in his throat as Belle pressed her mouth to his. I knew he didn't want to touch her, and I also knew he couldn't refuse her.
But he was mine. Micah was mine, not hers. Mine. I sat up with Micah on one hand and Damian on the other, the warm and the cold, the live and the dead, the passion and the logic. Jean-Claude's hands were still on my nearly bare shoulders. He strengthened me, as I strengthened him, but this power was mine, not his. The leopards weren't his to call. They were mine.
I called that part of me that the leopards touched and realized for the first time that it wasn't tied to Richard, or even really Jean-Claude. The leopards were mine, and Belle's.
I sat up with my face so close to hers that the glow of her fire caressed my face, and the pleasure of that light touch sent a wave of shivers over my skin. It wasn't that I was immune to Belle's touch. It was that I had my own.
I usually fought my beast, whatever flavor it was, but not tonight. Tonight I welcomed it, embraced it, and maybe that was why it poured through me like a scalding flood of power. If I'd been a lycanthrope in truth, my beast would have burst from my skin in a flood of warm fluids, but I wasn't a lycanthrope. But the beast rode under my skin, screamed out my mouth, and hit Micah's body like a train, a huge, liquid muscled train. It tore his mouth from Belle Morte's, and brought a scream to echo mine. My beast roared through his body, and his beast answered it. His beast rushed up from the depths to meet mine, like two leviathans racing for the surface.
We hit that metaphorical surface together, and our beasts wound in and out of our bodies, rolling like huge cats, luxuriating in the feel of fur and muscle. There was nothing to see with the eyes, but there were things to feel.
Belle brushed her glowing hands just above us, caressing that energy. "Tres de bon gout," She touched Micah's skin, and that energy leaped to her, bringing a gasp from her throat. Micah turned, and I think would have gone to her again, but I caught his face in my hands. We kissed.
The kiss began as a brush of lips, an exploration of tongues, a nibbling of teeth, a pressing of mouths. Then our beasts rolled through our mouths, like two souls changing places. The rush of energy slammed our bodies together, sliced my nails through Damian's hand, convulsed Jean-Claude's hands on my shoulders. I felt both his body and Damian's bow backwards, a second before the power tore through them, and ripped sounds from both their throats that had more to do with pleasure than pain.
Micah and I rode each other, mouths locked in an endless kiss, as if our beasts had merged into one. Then slowly, the entwined energies began to roll apart and slide into their separate houses of flesh.
I came completely to myself on the floor with Micah collapsed on top of me, Damian lying on the floor with only my hand holding him. Jean-Claude was still sitting upright, but he was swaying softly in place, almost like he was dancing to music I couldn't hear. I think he was simply fighting not to fall down, but even that he made seem graceful.
Belle was staring down at us with a look close to rapture on her face. "Oh, Jean-Claude, Jean-Claude, what toys you have wrought for yourself."
Jean-Claude found his voice while I was still fighting to breathe over my pulse, and Micah's heart was thudding so hard against my chest it felt like it would burst. The pulse in Damian's palm beat like a second heartbeat against my skin. None of the rest of us had found a voice that could override the pulse of our bodies.
"Not toys, Belle, never toys."
"They are all toys, Jean-Claude, some are merely harder to use than others. But they are all toys." She stroked her glowing hand down the back of Micah's carefully styled hair.
Her energy played along his body, brought a sigh from all of us, but it was faint, almost a knee-jerk reaction, that you couldn't quite prevent. We lay quiet under her touch.
Belle looked down at us, and it was hard to see through the glowing mask, but I think she frowned. She ran her fingertips down the side of Micah's face, and there was no reaction. She called to his beast, but his beast was well fed, sleepy, and content.
My voice came, hollow, as if I hadn't quite filled back up. "The leopards are mine, Belle."
"The leopard was my first animal to call Anita, and call them I shall."
I lay on the floor, feeling languorous, content. Micah rolled his face so his cheek rested on the soft pillow of my breasts. We watched her with lazy eyes, the way that only cats can. I should have been afraid, but I wasn't. The rush of power seemed to have taken all my fear along with it. I felt clearheaded and safe.
Belle poured that misty power on us, but though she raised gooseflesh and brought sighs to our lips, there was no more. She could not call Micah as her beast, because he was mine. She could not call my beast, because I was Micah's. We truly were Nimir-Ra and Nimir-Raj, and together we were enough to keep her out of us.
She turned those gold-flame eyes to someone behind us, and I felt her reach out to one of the leopards. I'd known somehow it would be Nathaniel. If she'd tried it before Micah and I had merged, he would have come to her, but now it was too late. We'd shut that gate and barred it. Belle Morte could not touch our leopards, not tonight.
"This is not possible," she said, and her voice had lost some of its purring caress.
Jean-Claude answered her doubt. "You can call almost all the big cats, but you cannot call the cats that answer to the Master of Beasts."
"Padma sits upon the council, you are one of my children. That I cannot take what belongs to another council member is merely truth. That any of my children could keep me from possessing what is theirs is impossible."
"Perhaps," Jean-Claude said, and he got to his feet. He offered a hand to both Micah and me. Normally, I don't let people help me up, but tonight I was wearing a long skirt, high heels, and had just had what amounted to metaphysical sex in public. We took his hands together, and he pulled us to our feet. Damian still had a death grip on my other hand, but he stayed on his knees, eyes still only half-focused, as if the power rush had thrown him more than it had the rest of us. He was the only one of us who wasn't either a master or an alpha something. I drew him in to sit against my legs, but didn't try and make him stand; it didn't look like he was ready to yet.
"By American standards," Jean-Claude said, "this did not count as sex."
Belle laughed, and the sound still shivered across the skin, but it was distant. Either we were too numb, or too shielded for her to touch. "The Americans do not count this as sex, that is absurd!"
"Perhaps, but true nonetheless. You and I would consider it sex, would we not?"
"Oh, oui,sex enough for one of my entertainments."
I almost felt Jean-Claude smile. I didn't have to see it. "Do you truly believe we have not done this and more with Asher?"
She looked at him, and her anger lashed through the room again like a wind off the lakes of hell. "I will not be turned aside so easily." She gestured back at the two dead vampires. "You have no idea what your human servant has taken from me. They were not merely vampires."
"They were lycanthropes," I said.
She looked at me, and there was more interest than anger in her now. Belle had always been more interested in power than being petty, though if she could be both, well, that would be the best of all worlds.
"How do you know this?"
"I felt their beasts, and I felt the beast from Mommy Dearest earlier today."
"Mommy Dearest?" She managed to look puzzled underneath all that glittering power.
"The Sweet Dark," Jean-Claude said.
"I felt her stir in her sleep, Belle. The Mother of All Darkness is waking up, that's why her children, as you put it, finally came to someone's call."
"I called them," she said.
"You can call all of the great cats, and among other things, they are cats. I'll bet the Master of Beasts could call them, too, if he tried," I said.
I thought for a moment she was actually going to stamp her foot–or rather Musette's–at me. "They came to my call, no one else's."
"Doesn't it worry you that the children of the dark are rising? Doesn't that scare you?"
"I have worked long and hard to amass enough power to wake the children of the dark."
I shook my head. "You felt her today, Belle, how can you stand there and not understand that this isn't your power going to a new level, it's hers waking up."
Belle Morte shook her head. "Non, ma petite,you are seeking to deter me from my revenge. I never forget an insult, and I always make sure someone pays the price for it." She walked up to us, and that glowing edge of power swirled at my full skirts, but it didn't catch my breath this time. It was power, and it crawled across my skin like lines of insects marching, but it wasn't seductive, it wasn't special. We'd all had so much power poured through us that we just didn't have anything left for more fun and games tonight.
She ran her hand down Micah's chest, and I felt his body tighten, but it wasn't the effect she was used to. She touched Jean-Claude's face, and he let her.
"Marvelous, as always, Belle."
"No, not as always," she said. She turned to me, then.
I didn't want her to touch me, but I knew that I could let her do it now. She wasn't here in the flesh, not really, and it limited her power. Intellectually I knew that, the cold hard feeling in my stomach wasn't so certain. I made myself stand still while she put that glowing hand against my face. Her hand didn't exactly burn where it touched, but it was hot, and the power spread from it, marching down my body like hot water poured from my face down my skin. It made me shiver and want to pull way, but I could tolerate it. I didn't have to pull away. I didn't have to run.
She drew her hand back, and there was a lingering sense of power between her hand and my skin. She brushed it against her skirt, Musette's skirt. I wondered, was Musette still in there? Did she know what was happening? Or did she go away, only to come back when Belle was finished?
She turned last to Damian. He tucked himself in tight against me, like a dog that was afraid of being hurt, but he didn't run. Belle touched his face. He flinched, not wanting to meet her eyes, but as he knelt at my legs, and nothing worse happened to him than the feel of power over his skin, he looked up, slowly. There was something like wonderment in his eyes, and behind that, triumph.
Belle jerked her hand back as if it had been she who was burned. "Damian is of my line, but not of yours, Jean-Claude. It is not your power that he tastes of." She looked at me, and there was something on that beautiful, alien face that I couldn't understand. "Why does he taste of your power, Anita? Not you of his, but he of yours."
I wasn't sure truth would help here, but I knew a lie wouldn't. "Would you believe me if I said I'm not quite sure."
"Oui,and non.You speak truth, but there is some evasion to it."
I swallowed and took a deep breath. I really didn't want Belle to know this part. I really didn't want it getting back to the council at large.
She looked at me, and her eyes went wide, and some of that glowing power began to seep away, sliding back into Musette's body, so that it was Musette with honey-brown eyes that met my gaze. "Somehow he is your servant. Our legends speak of this possibility. It is one of the reasons we once slew all necromancers on sight."
"Glad we've moved on from the good ol' days," I said.
"We have not, but when we thought you were Jean-Claude's human servant, then there was no harm, because your power was his." She shook her head and there was an afterimage of black hair over the blond, a dark ghost over all that bloodstained white. "Now I am not so certain. You taste of Jean-Claude's power, oui,but Damian tastes only of yours. And the leopards taste only of your power, also. No necromancer has ever had an animal to call."
She shook her head. "Jean-Claude with his new human servant and her servants, has been able to keep me at bay. If I were here in flesh instead of spirit, this would not save you, I think."
"Of course, it would not," Jean-Claude said, "your beauty would overwhelm us."
"No false flattery, Jean-Claude, you know how much I hate it."
"I did not know it was false."
"I am not so certain that my beauty would overwhelm any of you. Somehow this one," and she motioned at me, "has cut me off from the leopards, and somehow, you have cut me off from the vampires that descend directly from you."
My pulse sped up a bit at that, because I hadn't even felt her trying to take over Meng Dei or Faust. They were standing as far from the show as they could, dressed in the bodyguard black leather. Though both were so small compared to the rest that they looked out of place. Meng Die looked scared, Faust didn't. Which could have meant anything and nothing.
"But not every vampire in this room is a direct descendant of yours, Jean-Claude. Because I am not here in flesh you may keep me from the flock that is yours, but not what was first mine."
I was afraid I knew what she meant, and hoped I didn't.
Belle Morte brushed past us, with a flare of power lost like a breeze against our skin. She was walking towards Asher. Because she had made him herself, and he was older than Jean-Claude, Asher owed nothing to Jean-Claude except the vows any vampire makes to his Master of the City, and love, perhaps love. I wasn't sure love was enough to save him from Belle Morte. I believed in love, but I believed in evil, too. Neither love nor evil conquers all, but evil cheats more.