Asher lay against the far wall. He was a skeleton with dried parchment skin. He lay on a bed of golden Christmas tree tinsel, the glorious remnant of his hair. His clothes had collapsed around his sunken body, like a deflated balloon. His eyes were closed, and only the roundness of his eyes underneath that thin skin was flesh and solid. Everything else seemed to have withered away.
I fell to my knees beside him, because suddenly I couldn't stand.
"He's not dead," Valentina's child voice came, but she stayed out of reach. She offered comfort, but she wasn't stupid.
I looked down at what was left of all that beauty and didn't believe her.
"See with something other than your eyes, ma petite," Jean-Claude said. He didn't kneel, but stayed standing, facing Belle Morte, almost as if he didn't dare turn his back on her.
I did what Jean-Claude told me to do; I looked with power instead of my physical eyes. I could feel a spark inside Asher, some small part of him still burned. He wasn't dead, but he might as well have been. I looked up at Jean-Claude. "He's too weak to take blood."
"And he has no human servant," Belle Morte said, "no animal to call. He is without," and she paused, seemed to think upon her next word. Finally, she said, "resources."
Resources,that was a nice word for it. But whatever word you used, she was right. Asher had nothing to feed on but blood, and if he was too weak to feed on that . . . I couldn't finish the thought even in my head.
"Belle Morte could save him," Jean-Claude's voice was neutral, empty.
I looked up at him, then past him to her. "What do you mean?"
"She made him, and she is a sourdre de sang.She could simply give him back some of the energy that she stole from him."
"I stole nothing," Belle said, and her own neutral voice held a hint of anger. "You cannot steal what is yours by right, and Asher is mine, all of him, Jean-Claude, every piece of his skin, every drop of his blood. He lives only through my sufferance, and without that he dies."
Jean-Claude made a small gesture. "Perhaps stoleis not the correct term, but you can restore some of his life energy. You could bring him back enough to be able to feed on blood."
"I could, but I will not." Her anger was like a scalding wind, biting along my skin where it touched.
"Why not?" I asked it, because no one else seemed willing to, and I had to know.
"I do not have to explain myself to you, Anita."
I still had the gun in my hand. Suddenly it was heavy, as if it had reminded me it was there, or maybe the shock of lifting it was enough for me to feel again. I stood up and aimed the gun at Musette's chest. "If Asher dies, so does Musette."
"You have not had much luck killing vampires with your little gun," Belle said, and she sounded confident. Of course it wasn't her body that I was about to riddle with bullets.
"I think the Mother's children are special cases. They probably can survive pretty much everything but fire. I don't think that's true of Musette." I had let out the breath in my body, so that I was as still as I could get. My free hand was resting at my lower back, half cradled on my buttocks. It was my favorite position for target shooting.
"Angelito will stop you," she said simply.
I looked back to find Angelito held on his knees by three werewolves, but hey . . . "If he makes a nuisance of himself he can die, too. He probably won't survive me killing Musette anyway."
Belle Morte's brown eyes widened just a bit. "You would not dare."
"Sure I would," and I smiled, but it didn't reach my eyes, because I had them on Musette's body. I was ignoring Belle's shape over Musette, concentrating on seeing that white dress with its dried blood. The more I concentrated, the more of Musette I could see, like a double image, Musette's chest in my physical eyes, and Belle's ghostly overlay in my head. It made me wonder how much of Belle everyone else had been seeing, or if I'd had a better show because of my necromancy. I'd ask someone later. Much later.
"Jean-Claude, you cannot allow this."
"Ma petitehas her moments of rashness, but in this moment she has reminded me that the rules are not the same now. I am within my rights as sourdre de sangto punish one of your people for harming my second in command. It is perfectly within our laws."
"I did not know that Asher was the second in command to a sourdre de sangwhen I drank from him."
My arm was still steady, but it wouldn't last. You can't hold a one-armed shooting stance forever. Hell, you can't hold any shooting stance forever. "You know now," I said, "and he's not dead yet, so you're killing the second in command of another sourdre de sangwith foreknowledge."
"We are within our rights to take Musette's life in payment for Asher's," Jean-Claude said. "You should be more careful, Belle. Sending people you value far away from you makes it so much harder to keep them safe."
I was fighting for my arm not to tremble. Eventually, I'd lose. "Let me make this easy for you, Belle, help Asher now, or I kill Musette."
The one thing that was the same in both the vision of my eyes and the vision of my head, was those honey-brown eyes. Those eyes looked at me, and I felt the draw in them. She wanted me to lower my gun, and my arm hurt, so why didn't I? My arm started to lower, and I caught myself a moment before Jean-Claude touched my shoulder.
I put the arm back where I'd had it. But just lowering and raising it had helped the lactic acid build up. I could hold the stance for much longer now.
"If you wish to play games with Musette's life, that is up to you," Jean-Claude said, and his voice danced over my skin, made my body shiver, made my hand convulse, and only practice kept my finger from squeezing the trigger. But I didn't tell him to stop, because Belle had used her mark on me to cloud my mind. It had been a long time since a vampire had gotten to me so casually.
Jean-Claude's sex ran over my skin while the fear ran like ice through the rest of me. Belle wasn't defeated, not even close. Arrogance would get more of us killed. So, no arrogance, just truth. "What you have to ask yourself, Belle," I said, in a voice that was very quiet because I was concentrating on my breathing, trying to be still, for when I fired, "is, is your love for Musette stronger than your hatred for Asher?"
"You do not hate lesser beings, Anita, you merely punish them." Her voice sounded so sure of itself.
Jean-Claude said one word, "Liar."
Those dark honey eyes flicked to him, and there was no love lost in that look. She hated Jean-Claude, too. She hated them both. They had told me why. They were the only two men who had ever left her bed voluntarily, as far as she saw it. They had deserted her, and no one leaves Belle Morte, because no one would want to. Strangely, their leaving had damaged her sense of self. But I didn't share this knowledge because hurting Belle Morte's pride wouldn't help us. To salvage her pride she'd let Asher and Musette die. I was almost sure of it. I swallowed the words, and fought to control my face, but I'd forgotten that she was a sourdre de sang,and she'd marked me once. It wasn't my face I had to worry about.
Her voice came in my head like a dream, riding on the scent of roses, "My pride is not so fragile a thing, Anita."
Jean-Claude's kiss on my cheek chased back the scent of roses, and that purring voice. "Ma petite, ma petite,are you well?"
I nodded. "Prove it," I said, "heal Asher."
Jean-Claude didn't ask to whom I was speaking. He'd heard through me, or he guessed, or he didn't bother to question, because we were running out of time.
"You will talk him to death," Valentina said.
Everyone but me looked at the child vampire. I was still fighting to keep a target on Musette's white-clad chest.
"If you do not give him the kiss of life soon, he will be beyond even your powers, Belle Morte," Valentina said.
Belle fought to keep her face calm, but the anger leaked through the room. Or maybe I was just more sensitive to it. "Have you changed sides, petite morte?"
"Non,but I do not wish to lose Musette by accident. If you choose Asher's death, that is one thing. To simply miss the chance to save him, another."
I wanted badly to turn and look at Valentina, but I kept my gaze on Musette, on Belle. Besides, Valentina's face would have been like all the old ones when they were hiding themselves, or risking themselves, blank, empty, a lovely mask.
Something passed between them. Something I could not read. Belle took a deep, impatient breath, smoothed her skirts, and began to walk forward. It wasn't quite the graceful glide that Musette's body normally had. I wondered if vampires had trouble gliding when they were nervous, because Belle was nervous. I could feel it.
I lowered the gun, as she moved, because if she was going to save Asher, Musette lived. That was the deal. Besides, my shoulder and hand were beginning to ache. If I'd known I was going to have to keep the stance so long, I'd have gone for a two-handed stance.
Belle Morte seemed to collect herself as she moved across the room, so that by the time she reached Asher she was gliding, and Musette's white dress was completely lost to Belle's dark gold, at least to my eyes.
She knelt by Asher's body. I couldn't think of it as anything else but a body. I was already distancing myself from him. I realized with something like shock that I didn't believe she'd save him. He felt so dead, so very dead.
Jean-Claude's hands squeezed my shoulders, and I realized that he was shielding from me, hard. He didn't want to share his feelings right now, and I didn't blame him. They were too personal for sharing, too frightening.
Richard was gone, too. I actually had to glance at him to make sure he was still in the room, that's how tight he was shielding. I wasn't sure when he went away behind his shields, which seemed strange. I should have noticed. He caught my look, and he couldn't keep the compassion, or the pain, off his face. I don't think it was pain for Asher.
Jean-Claude's hands tensed and the movement brought my attention back to Belle. Her hair fell out around her like a black cloak, so that the gold dress showed only in hints through all that blackness.
I felt Jean-Claude gather himself, like it was a physical effort to gather his will, then he sighed, and he shook himself like a bird settling its feathers. He stepped out from behind me and offered me his arm, very formally. I hesitated for a heartbeat, then slid my arm through his. He was still shielding from me, still hiding his emotions, but I didn't need to be anything but his friend to know what he was thinking. It hurt his heart to see Asher reduced to this. It hurt me, and I didn't have centuries of history with the man.
He walked us forward, toward the kneeling vampire and what was left of the person that we both loved. I would never know if my love for Asher was because of Jean-Claude's feelings for him. It probably was, but I couldn't separate my feelings from Jean-Claude's. That should have panicked me, but it didn't. I was tired of being scared all the time. I was ready to try and be as brave with my heart as I usually was with the rest of me. Besides, I'd been careful with Richard, and in the end we'd broken each other's hearts. I glanced at him as I walked forward on Jean-Claude's arm. My heart still tugged at the sight of him. Earlier today I'd been ready for a reconciliation. I was always ready for a reconciliation with Richard, any time he gave an inch. The trouble was, he kept taking back that inch.
He caught me looking at him, and there was something in his eyes, a pain, a loss, as deep as the ocean, as wide as the sea. I loved him. I really loved him. Maybe I always would. I had this horrible urge to run to him, to let him sweep me up in his arms, to chase that hurt from his eyes. But he probably wouldn't sweep me up in his arms. He'd probably just look at me, uncomprehending. And that would make me hate him. I didn't want to hate Richard.
I turned away from him. I didn't want him to see the longing, the loss, or the first stirrings of hate on my face.
I felt Richard beside me, before he touched me. I had a moment of surprise while I gazed up into his face. His face was as close to unreadable as he could get. He didn't sweep me up into his arms, but he did offer me his arm. I hesitated, as I had with Jean-Claude, then slowly, I slid my arm through his. He pressed his hand over mine, so warm, so solid, pressing me against the solid weight of his muscular forearm.
I lowered my eyes so he wouldn't see how it affected me. We were all shielding like a son of a bitch, trying to stay safe in our own thoughts.
Richard and Jean-Claude exchanged a look over my head. I don't know what the look was supposed to mean. It should have seemed silly to be exchanging any looks when all we had to do was open the marks that made us a triumvirate. Then we could have nearly read each other's minds. But this was the first time in months that Richard was at our side. I think all three of us were being as careful as we knew how to be.
Belle knelt over Asher, her head lowered as if she were kissing him. But she held herself off his body, one hand on the floor, the other against the wall. The kiss looked so intimate, but she went to great pains to not touch him more than she had to. An intimate act ruined.
I should have been able to feel the power she was pushing into him, but I was shielding too tight. I wasn't good enough at shielding to filter out, and in, what I chose. When I shielded this hard, I shielded everything out. I wanted to feel what she was doing. I wanted to sense whether that faint spark inside Asher was growing.
I opened just a touch, like widening the shutter on a camera, only a little opening, only enough to reach out and touch that spark.
I tasted Asher's kiss upon my mouth, as if I had drunk a wine that tasted of him. The spark had become a flame, a cold flame that filled his body, and still Belle poured energy into him. Asher screamed through my mind, and that silent scream staggered me, would have knocked me to my knees if Richard and Jean-Claude hadn't caught me.
"Anita, what's wrong?" Richard asked.
"Ma petite,are you well?"
There was no time to explain. I pulled free of both of them, and they didn't fight me. I grabbed Belle by the shoulder and the hair, and it was almost shocking to feel Musette's careful curls crush under my hand as I jerked her back. I was expecting to feel Belle's waves under my hand, but Belle wasn't here, not really. She'd never been here. She was not illusion, but not exactly real either.
I flung her away from Asher, sending her sliding across the floor on the slick white cloth of Musette's dress. But it was Belle's voice that thundered through the room, "How dare you lay hands on me."
"You're trying to bind him to you again, as of old. He doesn't want to be bound."
"He will fade and die without the power that I can breathe into him." She looked around as if she expected someone to help her to her feet. The only people who would have been willing to help were under guard, and no one else made a move. She finally stood on her own, but with nothing near to grab onto, and an old-fashioned corset on, graceful it was not. Good to know that some fashions even a vampire can't make work.
Belle turned eyes that glittered with brown fire to me. "Asher will die without me. Look at him, see what is left of him, it is not enough to survive."
Her power had poured some flesh in under that dry skin, but not much. It was as if I could see the individual muscles and ligaments under the skin, like a physiology diagram, to show where all the attachment points are. But it was not like a person. The hair was still a dry nest of golden tinsel, and the skin like faded parchment stretched over an obscenely thin frame. But the eyes, the eyes looked human, except for that extraordinary ice blue color. Even when he'd been human, his eyes could never have looked anything but extraordinary.
Asher was there in those eyes. He was trapped in that fragile, half-dead shell. He gazed up at me, and I felt the weight of everything he was in his eyes.
"Blood may save his life," Belle said, "but it will not give him back what he has lost. Only his maker, or the one who has taken his essence, can give it back." She stood there with her shining darkness coming out of the eyes in Musette's face. She didn't add that since she was both Asher's maker and the one who had stolen his essence, only she could return him to his former glory. Belle Morte had a little too much class to point out the obvious. But it hung unsaid in the air.
"He just needs power," I said, "it doesn't have to be yours."
"If he had a human servant, or an animal to call, but he has nothing," Belle said, and there was a tone of satisfaction in her voice that she couldn't, or didn't try to, hide. "He is alone, and binding himself to me again is the only choice he has, unless you wish him to spend the rest of eternity as he is now." The note of satisfaction slid into cruelty without blinking an eye.
"You can't leave him like this," Richard said, and there was pity on his face, yes, but more, there was horror. "Being tied to Belle Morte isn't worse than this."
"If you had ever known her embrace," Jean-Claude said, "you might not be so quick to decide."
Richard looked at him, then back at Asher, then at Belle Morte. "I don't understand."
"No," I said, "you don't." Then I looked up at him, touched his arm, very lightly. "Think of yourself trapped forever with Raina."
A look of disgust and personal revulsion skipped across his face, before he could hide it. I still carried a piece of Raina's munin, her spirit memory, in me. She was a sexual sadist, but she'd also fiercely protected the very people she tortured. The woman had needed some serious therapy. In the end, the only therapy she'd gotten had been silver bullets. I never felt bad about killing Raina. Funny that.
Richard nodded. "I understand that, but . . ." he made a helpless gesture towards Asher, "this is not . . ." He seemed at a loss for words.
I couldn't blame him. I had no words at the thought of this being Asher's fate for the next few centuries. It wasn't bearable. It simply wasn't. But I couldn't make Belle give him the energy without strings attached. It was the nature of vampire energy that there were always strings attached. It was designed to bind a vampire to its maker, and through its maker, to the council, to the entire power structure of their world. Everything would fall apart if you didn't belong to somebody. There are masterless shape-shifters, but no masterless vampires. There are vampires who have lost their masters, but they are compelled to find a new master, to swear new blood oaths, to hunt someone else to rule them. A truly lesser vampire can even die without a master vampire to rule them. They go to sleep at dawn and never wake up again.
I knew all this. Knew all of it, and didn't care. I could feel Asher's–not thoughts–but will. He preferred a clean death to this. Or to being Belle's slave again.
I dropped to my knees beside him. I could give him a clean death. I knew all about death. I started to touch him, my hand hesitated. I didn't want to touch him. Didn't want to feel that once-living skin turned to this. Didn't want my last memory of him to be this. But I hate cowardice, almost worse than anything else, and if Asher could be trapped inside this body, then I could touch him one last time.
I laid my hand against his face, gently, oh, so gently. The skin felt thin as paper, dried, and brittle. I was afraid if I pushed, my fingers would go through his skin like the pages of an ancient book handled too roughly.
I'd forgotten that all vampire powers are stronger with touch. One second I was holding his face as delicately as I could, the next moment I had collapsed across his body, and was writhing with the memory of Asher's body on mine.
Hands grabbed me back, ripped me away from Asher, and I fought those hands, drove my elbow back into a groin. The hands didn't let go, but dimly I heard someone yelling my name, "Anita, Anita, Anita," over and over.
I blinked, and it was like waking, but I knew my eyes hadn't been closed. Richard's hands were still on me, but he was standing like something hurt.
I opened my mouth to apologize, but what came out wasn't an apology. "Why did you stop us?"
"I thought you were going to crush him."
Staring up into his so sincere face, I knew he meant it. Hadn't I just moments before been afraid I'd shove a ringer through Asher's brittle skin? But somehow I knew that wasn't going to happen. Somehow I knew he was a lot more durable than he appeared.
Jean-Claude came to stand beside me, and the look on his face said that he'd figured out what Richard hadn't. But Richard wasn't good with the dead. It wasn't his area of specialty. Jean-Claude touched my face, gently, as if afraid I'd break. "He fed from you. From your memory of him."
I nodded. "Yes."
"How many vampires can you serve?" Belle asked. Apparently, Jean-Claude hadn't been the only one to notice.
I realized that she thought Asher had marked me, but that wasn't exactly it. "He hasn't marked me, Belle, if that's what you think."
"Then how can he feed from your strength?"
"Surprise," I said, "I don't think that Jean-Claude is the only vampire who's gained new power."
"This is not possible."
"But it's true," I said, and I didn't try and keep the triumph out of my voice. We didn't need her now. We didn't fucking need her now.
Richard was still holding my arms. I looked up at him. "Let me go, Richard."
He frowned down at me. He either didn't understand, or didn't want to.
I repeated myself, more gently. "Let go, Richard, please."
His eyes flicked to Asher lying against the wall, still looking mostly dead. "The last time we talked about this, you had the same rule I had. No one feeds off of you."
I searched his face, while he gazed at what was left of Asher's beauty. I tried to see something in that gaze that I could talk to, explain things to, but I wasn't sure there was anyone there that would understand.
"If I don't let him feed, Richard, he'll be trapped like he is right now. He won't die. He won't decay. He'll just exist, like that."
He tore his gaze away from Asher and looked at me. "He didn't take blood."
"It's more like an energy feed, like the ardeur." It suddenly occurred to me that Richard might not know that Asher really, truly was in my bed. I'd pretended in the past with more than one man that he was a boyfriend or lover to fool the bad guys. Richard might believe that it was just a game again. Now wasn't the time to explain all the gory details. There would be time later to find out if Richard had meant what he said in my mind in the Jeep, that he didn't care who I had sex with, because we weren't dating. If he meant it, it would upset me. If he hadn't meant it, then knowing about Asher would upset him. Either way, it could wait.
He still hadn't let go of my arms. "Have you let Asher feed on you before?"
I don't know what I would have answered because he let go of one of my arms. He reached up a slow hand to touch my chin. I knew what he was going to do, and I couldn't stop it. He turned my head to one side, and exposed the vampire bites on the side of my neck.
"When did you start sharing blood?"
He lowered his hand, and I turned to meet his eyes. One look was enough. He, like me, thought sex was the lesser evil. The problem with something being a lesser evil is that something else has to be the greater evil.
"Is it just Jean-Claude, or . . ." His gaze flicked to Asher.
"We'll talk about this tomorrow, Richard, I promise, but right now, I need to help Asher."
He shook his head. "Are those Jean-Claude's marks on your neck?"
I sighed and looked down at the floor. I made myself meet his eyes, but damn it, I didn't have time or energy for this, not right now. "No," I said.
Again his gaze flicked to Asher. "His?"
"How can you let them feed off of you?"
"If I hadn't let Asher feed last night, then tonight he'd be dead, or enthralled to Belle Morte for the rest of eternity. It's one of the reasons we did it."
"You knew he'd be able to feed?" He frowned at me.
I shook my head. "No, but Musette had claimed him for Belle, because he didn't belong to anyone. We made sure he belonged to us."
"Us?" he actually looked at Micah first.
Micah's face was as neutral as he could manage.
"Not Micah, Jean-Claude."
He looked at the vampire, then back to Micah. "How can you let her do this?"
"I'd feed him myself if it would help," Micah said.
Richard's eyes widened, and the look on his face was uncomprehending. "I don't understand that."
Micah just looked at him for a moment, then he looked at me, and there was something in his eyes that said he understood some of what all this cost me, cost us both, cost us all.
Richard had let go of my arm now. In fact he'd taken a step back from me, as if he didn't want to be that close. He acted as if I'd done something unclean. If he only knew. Or maybe the sex wouldn't bother him at all, maybe it was all about the feeding for him. My moral standards just weren't that finely cut anymore.
I sighed and turned to Jean-Claude. "Since you went along for the ride with Asher's feeding, he may be able to feed off of you through me."
Jean-Claude nodded. "Perhaps."
"If you touch me, while I touch Asher, and drop shields, we can try it. Between the two of us I think we can get him back to a place where one blood feeding should get him back to his normal glorious self."
"I am willing to try," he said.
I fought the urge to glance at Richard. "I know you are." I walked away from them both towards Asher. I wanted to feed Asher back to health, but truthfully, I'd had about enough of all the men in my life for one night.