Cerulean Sins (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #11)

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05.03.2019

7

Musette stood by the white brick fireplace. It had to be her, because she was the only little blond Barbie doll in the room, and that's how Jason had described her. Jason had a lot of faults, but describing a woman inaccurately was not one of them.

She was indeed small, shorter than me by at least three inches. Which made her barely five feet tall, if she was wearing heels under the long white gown, then she was tinier still. Her hair fell around her shoulders in blond waves, but her eyebrows were black and perfectly arched. Either she dyed one thing or the other, or she was one of those rare blonds where body and head hair didn't match. Which did happen, but not often. The blond hair, pale skin, dark eyebrows and eyelashes framed blue eyes like spring skies. I realized that her eyes were only a few shades bluer than Jason's. Maybe it was the dark eyebrows and lashes that made them seem so much more vivid.

She smiled with a rosebud mouth that was so red I knew she was wearing lipstick, and once I saw that I knew she was wearing more makeup. Well done, understated, but there were touches here and there that helped a striking, almost childlike beauty along.

Her pomme de sangknelt at her feet like a pet. The girl's long brown hair was piled on top of her head in a complicated layer of curls that made her look even younger than she was. She was pale, not vampire pale, but pale, and the icy blue of her long, old-fashioned dress didn't help give her any color. Her slender neck was smooth and untouched. If Musette was taking blood, where was she taking it from? Did I want to know? Not really.

A man stood between the fireplace and the large white couch with its spill of gold and silver pillows. He was the opposite of Musette in almost every way. Well over six feet tall, built like an overly large swimmer, broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, narrow-hipped, with legs that seemed longer than I was tall. His hair was black, black like mine was black–with blue highlights. It was tied in a thick braid down his back. His skin was as dark as skin that hadn't seen much sun in centuries could be. I was betting he tanned with very little effort. He just hadn't had much opportunity to catch any rays. His eyes were an odd blue green, aqua, like the waters of the Caribbean. They were startling in his dark face and should have added warmth and beauty. But they were cold. He should have been handsome, but he wasn't, the sour expression on his face stole all that. He looked as if he were always in a bad mood.

Maybe it was the clothes. He was dressed as if he'd stepped out of a centuries-old painting. If I had to go around in tights, I might be grumpy, too.

Though I had a man on either arm, it was definitely Jean-Claude who led us between the two overstuffed chairs, one gold, one silver, with their piles of white pillows. He stopped in front of the white wood coffee table with its crystal bowl of white and yellow carnations. Damian also stopped instantly, standing very still under the touch of my hand. Jason flopped, gracefully, into the gold chair closest to the fireplace. Asher stood on the other side of the silver chair, as far away from Musette as he could get without leaving the room.

Musette said something in French. Jean-Claude replied in French, and I actually understood that he'd told her that I didn't speak French. She said something else that was a complete mystery to me, then she switched to a heavily accented English. Most vampires have no accent, at least in America, but Musette had a doozy. Thick enough in places that I knew if she spoke too fast, English or not, I wouldn't be able to understand her.

"Damian, it has been long since you graced our court with your presence."

"My old mistress did not care for the life of the court."

"She is an odd one, your mistress Morvoren."

I felt Damian's body react to the name like he'd been slapped. I stroked the top of his hand the way you'd sooth a worried child.

"Morvoren is powerful enough to compete for a council seat. She was even offered the Earthmover's old place. She would not even have had to fight for it. It was a gift." Musette was watching Damian, studying his face, his body, his reactions. "Why do you think she refused such a bounty?"

Damian swallowed, his breath shaky. "As I said," he had to clear his throat, to finish, "my old mistress is not one for court life. She prefers her solitude."

"But to give up a seat on the council without a battle to risk, that is madness. Why would Morvoren do that?"

Each time she said the name, Damian flinched. "Damian answered your question," I said, "his old master likes her privacy."

Musette turned those blue eyes to me, and the flat unfriendliness of the stare made me half wish I hadn't interrupted.

"So, this is the new one." She walked towards us, and it wasn't just gliding, it was a sway of hips, there were high heels under the skirt. You didn't get that sashay without them.

The tall dark and scary man moved behind her like a shadow. The young girl stayed sitting in front of the fireplace, her pale blue skirts spread around her like they'd been arranged. Her hands were very still in her lap. She looked arranged, too, as if she'd been told sit here, like this,and she would sit there, like that, until Musette told her to move. Definitely yucky.

"May I present Anita Blake, my human servant, the very first I have ever called to me. There is no other, there is only she." Jean-Claude used his hand in mine to sweep me outward away from the coffee table, and incidentally, Musette. It was almost a dance move, as if I was supposed to curtsy, or something. Damian followed the movement, making it look like a very graceful game of crack the whip. The vampires bowed, and, caught between them, I had little choice but to do what they did. Maybe there was more than one reason that Jean-Claude had put me in the middle.

Musette swayed towards us, her hips making a dance of the billowing white skirt. "You know the one I mean, Asher's servant, what was her name?" There was a look in those blue eyes that said she knew damn well what the name was.

"Julianna," Jean-Claude said, voice as neutral as he could make it. But neither Asher nor he could say Julianna's name without some emotion.

"Ah, yes, Julianna, a pretty name for someone so common." She'd come to stand in front of us. The tall dark man stood behind her, menacing by his very size. He had to be damn close to seven feet tall. "Why is it that Asher and you choose such common women? I suppose there is something comforting about good, sturdy, peasant stock."

I laughed before I could think. Jean-Claude squeezed my hand. Damian went very still under my other hand.

Musette didn't like being laughed at, that was plain on her face. "You laugh, girl, why?"

Jean-Claude squeezed my hand tight enough that it was just this side of pain. "Sorry," I said, "but calling me a peasant isn't much of an insult."

"Why is it not?" she asked, and she looked genuinely puzzled.

"Because, you're right, as far back as anyone can trace my family tree I have nothing but soldiers and farmers. I am good peasant stock and proud of it."

"Why would you be proud of that?"

"Because everything we've gotten, we've made with our two hands, the sweat of our brows, that kind of thing. We've had to work for everything we have. No one has ever given us anything."

"I do not understand," she said.

"I don't know if I can explain it to you," I said. I was thinking it was like Asher trying to explain to me what you owed a liege lord. I had nothing in my life that prepared me to understand that sort of obligation. I didn't say that out loud though, because I didn't want to bring up the idea that I owed Belle Morte anything. Because I didn't feel I did.

"I am not stupid, Anita, I would understand if you would explain yourself clearly."

Asher moved from behind, to the other side of us, still as far as he could stay from Musette, but it was brave of him to draw attention to himself. "I attempted to explain to Anita earlier what one owes a liege lord, and she could not understand it. She is young and American, they have never had the . . . benefit of being ruled here."

She turned her head to one side, disturbingly like a bird just before it takes a bite out of a worm. "And what has her lack of understanding of civilized ways to do with anything?"

A human being would have licked their lips, Asher went still, quiet. (Hold still enough, and the fox won't know you're there.) "You, lovely Musette, have never lived where you were not subject to a lord, or lady, or where you did not rule others. You have never lived without knowing the duties one owes one's liege."

"Oui?" she made that one word cold, so cold, as if to say, go on, dig yourself a deeper hole to be buried in.

"You have never dreamt of the possibility that being a peasant, owing no one, would be a freeing experience."

She waved a carefully manicured hand, as if clearing the very thought from the air. "Absurd. 'Freeing experience,' what does that mean?"

"I believe," Jean-Claude said, "that the fact that you do not understand what that means is Asher's exact point."

She frowned at them both. "I do not understand, thus it cannot be that important." She dismissed it all with a wave of dainty hands. Then she turned her attention back to me, and it was frightening. I wasn't sure what it was about the mere gaze of those eyes, but it chilled the marrow in my bones.

"Have you seen our present to Jean-Claude and Asher?"

I must have looked as confused as I felt, because she turned and tried to motion behind her, but all I could see was her very large human servant. "Angelito, move so she may see." Angelito? Somehow the name, "little angel" didn't fit him. He moved, and she finished the motion towards the fireplace.

It was only the fireplace with it's painting above it, then something about the painting caught my eye. It was supposed to be a painting of Jean-Claude, Asher, and Julianna in clothing a la the Three Musketeers, but it wasn't. If there hadn't been new and strange vampires in the room, I'm sure I would have noticed it sooner. Oh, yes, I would have noticed it sooner.

It was a picture of Cupid and Psyche, that traditional scene where Cupid asleep is finally revealed to the candle-wielding Psyche. Valentine's Day has robbed Cupid of what he was in the beginning. He was not a chubby sexless baby with wings. He was a god, a god of love.

I knew who had posed for Cupid, because no one else had ever had that golden hair, that long, flawless body. I had memories of what Asher had looked like before, but I'd never seen it, not me, myself. I walked towards the painting like a flower pulled towards the sun. It was irresistible.

Asher lay on his side in the painting, one hand curled against his stomach, the other hand flung outward, limp with sleep. His skin glowed golden in the candlelight, only a few shades lighter than the foam of hair that framed his face and shoulders.

He was nude, but that word didn't do him justice. The candlelight made his skin glow warm from the broadening of his shoulders to the curve of his feet. His nipples were like dark halos against the swell of his chest, his stomach was flat to the grace of his belly button as if an angel had touched that flawless skin and left a delicate imprint, a line of hair dark gold, almost auburn, traced the edge of his stomach, and ran in a line down, down to curl around him, where he lay swollen, partially erect, caught forever between sleep and passion. The curve of his hip was the most perfect few inches of skin that I'd ever seen. That curve drew the eye down to the line of his thigh, the long sweep of his legs.

I remembered with Jean-Claude's memories what the curve of that hip had felt like under my fingertips. I remembered arguing about whose hip was the softest, the most perfect. Belle Morte had said that the lines of both their bodies were the closest to perfection she'd ever seen on a man. Jean-Claude had always believed that Asher was the more beautiful, and Asher had believed the same of Jean-Claude.

The artist had painted white wings on the sleeping figure, so detailed they looked as if they'd be soft if you could touch them. The wings were huge and reminded me of renaissance pictures of angels. They seemed out of place on that golden body.

Psyche was peering around the edge of one wing, so that it shielded her upper body, yetrevealed a shoulder, the edge of her body, down to that first curve of hip, but most of her was lost behind Cupid's body. I frowned up at the picture. I knew that shoulder, the curve of the ribs under that white skin. Though traced with golden candlelight, I knew the line of that body. I'd expected Psyche to be Belle Morte, I'd been wrong.

I looked past the long black curls that didn't so much hide the figure as decorate it, and the face peering around the candle's edge was Jean-Claude's. It took me a second to be sure, because he seemed more delicately beautiful than normal, until I realized that he was wearing makeup–that centuries-old version of it, anyway. Things had been done to soften the line of his face, make his lips more pouting. But the eyes, the eyes were unchanged, with their black lace of lashes and that drowning deep color.

The painting was too large for me to stand next to the fireplace and see it all, but there was something about the eyes of the Cupid figure. I had to move close to see that they were open a mere slit, enough to show the cold blue fire that I'd seen when the hunger was upon Asher.

Jean-Claude touched my face, and it made me jump. Damian had moved back, giving us space. Jean-Claude traced the tears on my cheeks. The look in his eyes said clearly that I was crying tears for both of us. He couldn't afford to appear weak in front of Musette. And I couldn't help it.

We both turned to Asher, but he was standing as far away as the room would allow. He had turned away, so that all you could see of his face was that golden fall of hair. His shoulders were slightly hunched, as if he'd been struck.

Musette came to stand on the other side of Jean-Claude. "Our mistress thought, since you are together again as of old, that you would enjoy this little reminder of days gone by."

The look I gave her around Jean-Claude's shoulder was not a friendly one. I saw the girl who was her pomme de sangon the other side of the couch. I hadn't even been aware she'd moved away from the fireplace. If the bad guys had wanted to take me out, they could have done it, because I had seen nothing for a few minutes but the painting.

"The painting is our guest gift to our host, but we have a more personal gift just for Asher."

Angelito moved up beside her like a dark mountain, a much smaller painting in his hands. There were remnants of the paper and twine that had covered it like a discarded skin on the floor. It was half the size of the other, but obviously in the same style, realistic, but in glowing colors, hyperrealistic, very Titian.

The only light in the painting was firelight, the glow of the forge. Asher's body was colored gold and crimson with the reflected firelight. He was nude again, the edge of the anvil hid his groin, but the right side of his body was bare to the light. Even his hair was tied back in a loose ponytail so that the right side of his face couldn't be hidden. His arms were still strong as they pretended to forge the blade that lay on the anvil, but the right side of his face, the right side of chest, his stomach, his thigh, were a melted ruin.

These were not the old white scars that I was used to seeing, these were raw, red, discolored, angry lines, like some monster had slashed and gouged at his body. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a memory that was not mine.

Asher lying on the floor of the torture room, freed of the silver chains, the men who had tormented him slaughtered around him, in an explosion of blood. He reached out to us, his face . . . his face . . .

I swooned, and Jean-Claude and I fell in a heap on the floor, because I was experiencing directly what he was remembering.

Damian and Jason moved up beside us, but Asher stayed well back. I didn't blame him in the least.

8

"Asher, come and see your gift," Musette called.

Damian was already on the ground beside me, his hands on my shoulders, fingers digging in. I think he was afraid of what I would do. He should have been.

Asher's voice came strained, but clear, "I have seen that particular gift before. I know it well."

"Do you wish us to return to Belle Morte and tell her you did not appreciate her gift?"

"You may tell Belle Morte, that I have gotten exactly what she wished me to get out of her gifts."

"And what is that?"

"I am reminded of what I was, and of what I am."

I got to my feet, Damian still with a death grip on my shoulders. Jean-Claude rose gracefully like a puppet pulled by invisible strings. I would never be that graceful, but tonight it didn't matter.

Musette turned back to Jean-Claude. "We have given our gift to you Jean-Claude, and to Asher. We await our guest gifts."

His voice was empty, so bland it was like listening to silence. "I have told you, Musette, our guest gifts are weeks away from completion."

"I'm sure you can find something to stand in their stead." She stared at me.

I found my voice, and it wasn't bland. "How dare you come here three months early, knowing we won't be prepared and make demands on us?" Damian was clinging to my back a little frantically, but I was polite, for me. After what she and Belle Morte had just done, I was downright kind. "Your rudeness will not be used as an excuse to force us to do anything we don't want to do."

Damian's arms slid over my shoulders so he was cradling me against his body. I didn't fight it, because without his presence I think I would probably have struck her, or shot her. Which sounded like such a good idea.

Jean-Claude tried to smooth things over, but Musette waved him aside. "Let your servant talk, if she has something to say."

I opened my mouth to call her a heartless bitch, but it wasn't what came out. "Did you believe that gifts worthy of such beauty could be hurried? Would you really take some poor substitute in the place of the magnificence we had commissioned?"

I stopped talking. All of our men were staring at me, except Damian, who was hugging me for all he was worth.

"Ventriloquism," Jason said, from the other side of Jean-Claude, "it's the only answer."

Jean-Claude nodded. "A miracle indeed." Then he turned to Musette. "All, save one, pales before your beauty, Musette. How could I offer anything less than something beautiful to grace your loveliness?"

Her gaze turned back to me. "Is she not a beauty to equal mine?"

I laughed. Damian's arms tightened enough that I had to pat his arm so I could keep breathing comfortably. "Don't worry, I've got this one covered." I don't think anyone believed me, but I did, honest. "Musette, I know I'm pretty, I can admit that, but compared to the otherworldly triplets here, I am not the most beautiful person on our side."

"Triplets," Jason said, "why do I think I'm not included in that threesome?"

"Sorry, Jason, but you're like me, we clean up nice, but with these three standing here we are out of our league."

"You include Asher in the three beauties?" Musette said.

I nodded. "If you are cataloging beautiful people and Asher is in the room, then he always makes the list."

"Once, oui,but not now, not for centuries," she said.

"I disagree," I said.

"You lie."

I looked at her. "You're a Master Vampire, can't you tell when someone's lying, or telling the truth? Can't you feel it in my words, smell it on my skin?" I watched her face, those beautiful but frightening eyes. She couldn't tell if I was lying, or not. I'd only met one other Master Vamp that couldn't tell truth from lie, and that was because she was lying so badly to herself that truth would have gotten in her way. Musette was blind to truth, which meant we could lie through our teeth to her. That had possibilities.

She frowned at me and waved it all away with those tiny well-manicured hands. "Enough of this." She was intelligent enough to realize she was losing part of this argument, but she wasn't bright enough to know why. So she was moving on to something she thought she could win.

"Even Asher with his ruined beauty is more lovely than you are, Anita."

It was my turn to frown at her. "I think I already said that."

She frowned again. It was like she had been sent with certain lines to say, and I wasn't making the replies she'd expected. I was throwing her performance off, and Musette didn't seem to enjoy improvisation.

"It doesn't bother you that you are not more beautiful than the men?"

"I had to make peace with being the homely one of the group a long time ago."

She frowned so hard it looked painful. "You are a very hard woman to insult."

I shrugged as much as I could with Damian's arms still wrapped around me. "Truth is truth, Musette. I've broken the cardinal girl rule."

"And that would be?"

"Never date anyone prettier than you are."

That made her laugh, a surprised burst of sound. "Non, non, the rule is never to admit it." The smile faded. "You truly have no . . . difficulty with me saying I am more lovely than you."

I shook my head. "Nope."

She looked completely lost for a moment, until her own human servant touched her shoulder. She shuddered, took a deep shaking breath, as if remembering who and what she was, and why she was there. The last sign of laughter faded from her eyes.

"You have admitted that your beauty cannot rival mine, thus taking blood from you would not be a gift worthy of replacing the bauble that Jean-Claude is having made for me. You are correct, also, about your wolf. He is charming, but not as charming as the three of them.

I suddenly had a bad feeling about where this was headed.

"Damian is somehow yours. I do not understand it, but I can feel it. He is yours the way Angelito is mine, and you are Jean-Claude's. As Master of the City, Jean-Claude cannot be drink for the taking, but Asher belongs to no one. Give him to me for my guest gift."

"He is my second in command, my temoin," Jean-Claude said, still in that empty, means-nothing voice, "I would not lightly share him."

"I have met some of your other vampires this night. Meng Die has an animal to call. She is more powerful than Asher, why is she not your second?"

"She is another's second and will be going back to him in a few months."

"Why is she here then?"

"I called her."

"Why?"

The real reason was that while I was off doing my soul-searching Jean-Claude had needed more backup. But I didn't think he'd share that. He didn't. "A master calls home his flock periodically, especially if he thinks they will soon become masters of their own territory. A last visit before he loses the power to call them."

"Belle was most perturbed that you rose to Master of the City without that one last visit, Jean-Claude. She woke speaking your name, saying that you had struck out on your own. None of us thought you would ever rise so high."

He gave a low, sweeping bow, and she was standing so close that his hair almost brushed her skirt. "It is not often that anyone so surprises Belle Morte. I am most honored."

Musette frowned. "You should be. She was most . . . unhappy."

He stood slowly. "Why would my rise to power make her unhappy?"

"Because to be Master of the City is to be beyond the ties of obligation."

Ties of obligation seemed to mean more to the vampires than it did to me, because I felt them go all quiet. Damian was so still around my body that it was like he wasn't there at all. Only the weight of his arms let me know he was still clinging to me. The beat and pulse of his body was gone, tucked away somewhere deep inside.

"But Asher has not risen so high. He could still be called home," she said.

I glanced at Jean-Claude, but his face was utterly blank, that polite nothingness that meant he was hiding his every reaction. "That is, of course, within her purview, but I would need some notice before Asher was called away. America is less settled than Europe, and fights for territory are much less civilized." His voice was still empty, emotionless, nothing mattered. "If my second were to simply vanish, others would see that as a weakness."

"Do not worry, our mistress is not going to call him home, but she admits to being puzzled."

We all waited for her to go on, but Musette seemed content to let the silence stand.

Even with Damian hanging on to me, I broke first. "Puzzled about what?"

"Why Asher left her side, of course."

Asher moved up closer, though still keeping a much greater distance between himself and Musette than the rest of us. "I did not leave her side," he said, "Belle Morte had not touched me in centuries. She would not even watch entertainments where I was . . . featured. She said I offended her eye."

"It is her prerogative to do with her people as she sees fit," Musette said.

"True," Asher said, "but she bid me come to America with Yvette as my overseer. Yvette died, and I had no more orders."

"And if our mistress ordered you home?"

Silence, ours this time.

Asher's face was as empty of emotion as Jean-Claude's. Whatever he felt was hidden, but the very blankness of both their faces said that it did matter, and it was important.

"Belle Morte encourages her people to strike out on their own," Jean-Claude said. "It is one of the reasons her bloodline rules more territories than any other, especially here in the United States."

Musette turned those beautiful pitiless eyes on him. "But Asher did not leave to become a Master of the City, he left to have revenge on you and your human servant. He wanted to extract payment for his beloved Julianna's death."

See, she had known the name all along.

"Yet, here your servant stands, strong, well, and unharmed. Where is your vengeance, Asher? Where is the price Jean-Claude was to pay for his murder of your servant?"

Asher seemed to close in upon himself, so very, very still. I thought if I blinked, he'd have vanished altogether. His voice came distant, empty. "I found that, perhaps, I had blamed Jean-Claude in error. That, perhaps, he too mourned her loss."

"So," she snapped her fingers, "like that, all your pain, your hatred is forgotten."

"Not just like that, non,but I have learned many things that I had forgotten."

"Such as the sweet touch of Jean-Claude's body?" she asked.

The silence this time was so thick I could hear my blood roaring in my ears. Damian felt like a ghost against my body. All the vampires, I was sure, were wishing themselves away.

Either Jean-Claude and Asher had been doing it behind my back. Which was not impossible. But if not, to answer the question truthfully would be bad.

Jason caught my eye, but neither of us dared even shrug. I don't think we were sure what was going on, but that it would end some place painful was almost certain.

Musette swayed around Jean-Claude, to stand closer to Asher. "Are you and Jean-Claude a happy couple, once more, or," here she looked at me, "is it a happy menage a trois? Is that why you did not come home?" She pushed past Asher and Jean-Claude, making them move back, so she could stand in front of me. "How can the touch of such as this compare to the magnificence of our mistress?"

I think she'd just implied that I wasn't as good in bed as Belle Morte, but I wasn't entirely sure that's what she meant, and I didn't care. She could insult me all she wanted. Insulting me was less painful than so many other things she could be doing.

"Belle Morte is sickened at the sight of me," Asher said, finally, "she avoids me in all things." He motioned at the painting that Angelito was still holding up. "This is how she sees me. How she will always see me."

Musette swayed her way back to stand in front of Asher. "To be least among her court is better than ruling anywhere else."

I couldn't help myself. "Are you saying it's better to serve in Heaven than rule in Hell?"

She nodded, smiling, seemingly oblivious to the literary allusion. "Oui, precisement.Our mistress is the sun, the moon, the all. To be parted from her, only that is true death."

Musette's face was rapturous, glowing with that inner certainty usually reserved for Holy Rollers and television evangelists. She was, indeed, a true believer.

I couldn't see Damian's face, but I was betting it was as carefully blank as the rest. Jason was staring at Musette as if she had sprouted a second head, an ugly, spiky second head. She was a zealot, and zealots are never quite sane.

She turned to Asher with that radiance still suffusing her face. "Our mistress does not understand why you left her, Asher."

I did. I think everyone in the room did, except maybe for Angelito and the girl who was still standing on the other side of the couch where Musette had put her.

"Look at the painting of me as Vulcan, Musette, see what our mistress thinks of me."

Musette didn't bother to look behind her. She gave that Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing.

"Anita does not see me that way," he said.

"Jean-Claude cannot look at you without seeing what was lost," she said.

"The time when you could speak for me, Musette, is long past. You do not know my heart, or my mind, you never truly did," Jean-Claude said.

She turned to him. "Are you truly telling me that you would touch him, as he is now? Be careful how you answer, Jean-Claude, know that our mistress has seen deep into your heart and mind. You may lie to me, but never to her."

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

"See, you refuse to touch him, as she refuses to touch him."

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

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

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

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

"How dare you!" Musette said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Whoever said anything about sex?" Musette asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fuck," I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Because I have played this game with Musette before."

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

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

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

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

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

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