Cerulean Sins (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #11)

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05.03.2019

9

Musette made no move to protect herself. Angelito stayed with the other men across the room. It was as if neither of them saw me as a threat. You'd think with my reputation, vampires would stop underestimating me. But dead or alive, there are always fools.

I could feel myself smiling, and I didn't need a mirror to know that it wasn't a nice smile. It was the smile I got when I'd been pissed off too much and I'd finally decided to do something about it.

Musette made a big show of licking the knife clean, while Asher stood in front of her and bled. She licked it like a kid with a Popsicle on a hot day–got to lick carefully, but quickly, or it drips down your hand, and you lose some of it. Her eyes were all for me, the show was all for me. It was as if Asher didn't matter at all to her. Maybe he didn't.

She had actually turned back to plunge the blade home a third time, when I was within touching distance. I don't know what she thought I planned to do, because she seemed totally surprised when I grabbed her hand. Maybe she expected me to fight like a girl, whatever the hell that means.

I pushed my shoulder into her, and she tottered backwards on her high heels. I hooked my heel behind hers, and foot swept her leg out from under her. She fell backwards, because I helped. I rode her body down to the ground, turning the knife in her hand with mine, and when she hit the floor, I plunged the knife home. I leaned my knee into the back of our hands and felt the blade come out the back of her body.

I whispered to her, "It's not silver, you'll heal."

She screamed.

I didn't so much hear Angelito move as feel him. "If you come over here, Angelito, I will force this blade up into her heart, and it won't matter if it's silver, or if it's not. I'll shred her heart before you can cross the room."

The far drapes opened and vampires spilled into the room, some ours, some hers. I don't know what would have happened, but I heard the far door open, behind the drapes. I heard a lot of movement, and I almost tore the blade up through her, not at all sure the metal was strong enough to take the strain. With a better blade I could have dug for her heart, with this one I wasn't sure.

A split second before I tried it, I heard a sound that raised the hair on my arms. The sound of hyenas hunting. It's a hell of a lot creepier than the howl of a wolf, but that joined with it. I knew the moment I heard the noises that it was our calvary coming, not Musette's.

I didn't look behind, because I didn't dare take my eyes off the vampire I had pinned to the floor. But I felt the crowd surge behind me, felt the neck-ruffling power of shape-shifters filling the room like an electric cloud.

The touch of so many of them with such tension called my own beast like a snake in my gut to writhe and flow inside my body. I wasn't a shape-shifter, but through Richard and my tie to the wereleopards, I had the closest thing a human being could have to their very own private beast.

It was Bobby Lee, who was actually a wererat, that came forward enough for me to see him. His southern drawl always sounded so out of place in a fight. "You planning to kill her?"

"I'm thinking about it."

He knelt on one knee beside us. "You think that's the smart thing to do?" He glanced up at the vampires on the other side of the room.

"Probably not."

"Then maybe you should oughta ease up there, before you gut her."

"Micah send you?" I asked, eyes still on Musette's pain-filled face. I was happy to see her hurting. I didn't usually enjoy causing pain to anyone, but I just didn't mind hurting Musette.

"He didn't send any of your leopards, cause you told him not to, but he contacted the other leaders, and here we are. If you're not going to kill her, girl, you should probably let her go."

"Not yet," I said.

He didn't ask again, but stood up near us, like the good bodyguard he was.

I spoke directly to Musette, but I made sure my voice carried. "No one comes into our territory and harms our people. No one, not the council, not even le sourdre de sangof our bloodline. Everyone tells me that when I speak to you I'm speaking to Belle herself, well, here's the message. The next one of her people to harm one of our people is dead. I will take their heads, their hearts, and I'll burn the rest."

Musette found her voice, at long last, though it was strained, and a little afraid. "You would not dare."

I leaned into the blade, a little bit more, made her grunt with the force of it. "Try me."

The pain in Musette's face faded, vanishing like someone wiped it away, and her blue eyes began to darken. I rode the knife into her while Belle's pale brown eyes swirled to the surface, the dark overwhelming all that blue, until Musette's eyes were the color of poisoned honey.

I'd seen Belle do this trick once before, but it had been in a mirror, and my own eyes. Fear drove through me like a blade, chilling my skin, bringing my heart into my neck like a trapped thing. Fear can either chase back the beast, or call it. This fear calmed it, dampened it, so that that rising power sank away, leaving me alone, and scared. It wasn't a vampire trick that made me want to let her go and run away. I'd felt Belle move through my own body, and I never wanted her to be able to do it again. If I took Musette's heart with Belle inside her, could I kill them both? Probably not, but God, it was tempting.

Belle's voice came without a trace of fear, or strain. If the knife hurt her too, it didn't show. "Jean-Claude, have you taught her nothing?" The voice was not Musette's, it was deeper, richer, a low contralto. The irreverent thought that she'd give really good phone sex crossed my mind.

Jean-Claude started gliding towards us. He motioned for Damian to follow, and the red-haired vampire fell into step behind him. Jean-Claude came to kneel beside us and motioned Damian to do the same. They both bowed their heads, carefully out of reach. "Musette overstepped the bounds for a visitor to my lands. You would not tolerate such treatment of one of your own people. I have learned well the lessons you taught me, Belle Morte."

"What lesson is this?" she asked.

"Tolerate nothing. No hint of disobedience. No breath of revolution. No insult is tolerated. I admit that I forgot this in the rush of fear that Musette brought with her. The thought of insulting you, even indirectly was unthinkable, but I am no longer your creature. I am a Master of the City now. I am my own creature, and Asher is mine now. I will be what you brought me up to be, Belle, I will truly be your child. I will let ma petitebe as ruthless as she likes, and Musette will either learn better manners, or she will not be coming home to you ever again."

She sat up. With the knife plunged through her body, she sat up, and I could not keep her pinned down. The movement pushed me backwards enough to brush against Damian. He touched my back, and when I didn't tell him not to, he touched my shoulder.

Belle even dropped Musette's hand away from the knife, so that my hand held it in place. But she showed no pain, in fact she ignored me to look at Jean-Claude. I began to feel silly with my bloody hands and the knife still stuck in Musette. No, not silly, superfluous.

"You know what I would do to you if you harmed her," Belle said.

"I know that according to our own laws, the laws you helped enact, that no one is allowed to simply enter a territory without negotiating safe passage. Musette and her people are here three months before we gave them permission to enter, which means, in effect, they are outlaw, and have no rights, no safety. I could slaughter them all and council law would be on my side. You have too many people on the council that fear you, Belle, they would think it a good joke."

"You would not dare," she said.

"I will not allow you to harm Asher, not anymore."

"He is nothing to you, Jean-Claude."

"You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, magnificent in your lust; I am humbled by your power, awed by the political maneuvering that you do so effortlessly. But I have been long away from you, and I have learned that beauty is not always what it seems, that lust is not always better than love, that power alone is not enough to fill the bed or the heart, and that I don't have your patience for the politics."

She reached out a slender hand towards him. "I showed you love such as no mortal ever could."

"You showed me lust, mistress, sexual appetite."

"Oui, amour" she said, her voice sultry enough to cause goosebumps on my arms.

Jean-Claude shook his head. "Non,lust, not love, never love."

A look passed over her face, like a badly designed mask moving liquid under Musette's skin. It reminded me uncomfortably of watching the beast glide under the skin of a shape-shifter before it springs forth. If she changed into Belle completely, I was trying for her heart while I had the chance.

"You loved me once, Jean-Claude."

"Oui,with all my heart and all my soul."

"But you do not love me now," her voice was soft, there might even have been a trace of loss.

"I have learned that love can grow without the touch of sex, and that sex does not always lead to love."

"I would love you again," she whispered.

"Non,you would possess me again, and love is not about possession."

"You speak in riddles," she said.

"I speak truth as I have come to know it," he said.

Those pale honey brown eyes turned to me. "You have done this. Somehow, you have done this."

I was beginning to feel positively silly with the knife still in Musette, but I was afraid to take it out, because I was half expecting Belle to stand up and say, aha, that was what I was waiting for.So I kept the blade in and tried to think what to do. Staring into those pale brown eyes it was hard to think, hard not to either run away or try and kill her. If I can't run from my fears, I have a tendency to try and kill them. It's a strategy that's worked so far.

"What have I done?" I asked, and my voice showed the strain. Damian's hands kneaded gently at my shoulders, not so much a massage, as a reassurance that he was there, I think.

"You have turned him against me," she said.

"No," I said, "you did that all on your own, centuries before I was born."

That liquid mask moved under Musette's skin again. If I touched her face I thought I'd feel things underneath that should not have been there. "I took him to my bed, what more does anyone desire of Belle Morte?"

"You showed him what your love was worth when you cast Asher out of your bed."

"What does Asher's fate have to do with Jean-Claude's love?"

That anyone who knew the two of them could ask that was amazing. That the vampire that brought them together could ask that was both frightening and sad.

"You need to leave now, Belle," I said.

"Why, what have I said to upset you?"

I shook my head. "The list is too long, Belle, we don't have all night, let me hit the highlights. Go away, for now, please, just leave. I'm tired of trying to explain color to the blind."

"I do not understand what that means."

"No," I said, "you don't."

She stared up at me. Her hand came up as if to touch my face. "If you touch me," I said, "I'll see if Musette can survive without her heart."

"Why is the touch of my hand worse then the touch of our bodies one against the other?"

"Call it a hunch, but I don't want you touching me on purpose. Besides it's not your body, it's Musette's. Although I'm not sure about that, so call me cautious, and just don't touch me."

"I will see you again, Anita, I promise you that."

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

"You don't seem to believe me."

"Oh, I believe you, I just can't get too worked up over it."

"Worked up?" she made it a question.

"She means she cannot get too upset about your threat," Jean-Claude said.

Belle looked back at me. "Why can you not?"

"I've had a lot of vampires threaten me, I can't panic every time."

"I am Belle Morte, member of the council on high, do not underestimate me, Anita."

"Tell that to the Earthmover," I said. He'd been a council member that had come to town once upon a time. He'd died.

"I have not forgotten that Jean-Claude slew a council member."

Actually, I'd slain him, but why quibble? "Just go, Belle, please, just go."

"And if I choose to stay? What will you do? What can you do?"

I thought about several options, most of them fatal to one or both of us. Finally, I said, "If you want to keep this body, fine. It's not my body. It's not even my vampire. You want it, knock yourself out."

I leaned back from her and jerked the knife out. There was no way I was leaving a weapon on Musette. She was too likely to take the blade out and stick it in me. The blade pulling out brought a gasp from Belle that plunging it in hadn't.

She grabbed my wrist, as if to keep me from hurting her, but I should have known better. Some small, screaming part of me knew I was still kneeling on the carpet in Jean-Claude's living room, but the rest of me was in a dark, candlelit room. The bed was large and soft, mounded with pillows as if it would rise up in a soft cushioned wave and engulf me. The woman pressed into all that softness lay in a bed of her own dark hair, her eyes a solid golden brown fire, like staring at the sun through a piece of colored glass. Belle Morte stared up at me, her pale body naked. The glory of her spread before me, nothing hidden. I wanted her, wanted her as I'd never wanted anything else in my life.

I came back to myself, with a gasp. Jean-Claude held my other hand in a death grip. Damian was a weight against the back of my body. Jason stood over the rest of us as we knelt. His hands were on Jean-Claude's shoulder, and against the side of my neck, above Damian's hand. I could feel the pulse in my neck pounding against the pulse in the palm of Jason's hand.

I could smell the musty scent of fur, the rich, almost eatable smell of the forest. It was the smell of the pack. The werewolves that had come to guard our back had stepped up through the crowd. I could feel the wolves ranged behind me, feel them like there was an invisible thread between Jason, me, and them. Jean-Claude's ties to the wolves were direct, they were his animal to call. He didn't need Richard's beast to call the wolves. I needed a surrogate wolf to bind me to them. Richard should have been at our back, but he wasn't. If Jason had not been there to be our third, then Belle might have raised the ardeur,drowned us in memories of her sweet flesh. Flung us out into the room and turned my Mexican standoff into an orgy.

But Jean-Claude gave me his control through the press of his hand; Damian gave me his desperate reserve through his body molded against my back; Jason fed the pulse of the pack into the bend of my neck. We were not merely a triumvirate of power; through Damian's addition, we were more. And that more was stronger than Belle Morte trapped in Musette's body. If she'd been here in person, it might have been a different story, but she wasn't. She was way the hell in Europe somewhere.

A howl broke out behind me, and another, and another. Jason threw his head back, making a long clean line of his throat. A howl trembled from his mouth, to join with the chorus behind us. The sound rose and fell, one wolf's note dying off, another taking up the call, until the sound rose and fell like music–lonely, trembling, amazing music.

I met Belle's pale brown eyes and found them full of fire, like staring at flames through brown glass. It did remind me of her eyes in the memory she had chosen, but it was just a memory. There was no bite or pull to it now. The ardeurlay quiet, held behind the bars we had forged for it, from sheer force of will, and months of practice.

"The last time you rolled the ardeurover us, it was new to me. It's not new anymore," I said.

Something flowed under Musette's skin. It was like watching a second face roll underneath her skin. Again, I half expected Belle to burst out through Musette's body like some kind of shape-shifter. But the rolling shape stopped, and those dark fire eyes stared into mine.

"There will be other nights, Anita," she said, in that low, almost purring voice of hers.

I nodded. "I know."

With that she vanished. Musette fell back onto the floor into a . . . dead faint. Her vampires rushed forward. The wolves stayed at my back, the werehyenas stepped up, the wererats drew guns, and Bobby Lee said, "Don't queer our shot, gentlemen."

The werehyenas hesitated, forming two groups one to either side of the vampires. Our vampires peeled off from Musette's and eased through the crowd of wereanimals. "Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt," Bobby Lee said.

"Let them fetch their mistress," Jean-Claude said.

Some of the shape-shifters looked his way, none of the wererats did. We had this much backup not because Jean-Claude had a tie to any other animal except the wolves, but because I'd made friends. The wererats and werehyenas were here for me, not him.

"Ease down, Bobby Lee, let them get Musette. I certainly don't want to have to take care of her."

The men and women, wererats all, with their guns nicely pointed, moved back in two lines so the vampires had to walk between them to reach Musette. Angelito had joined them, but Bobby Lee motioned him back with a wave of his gun barrel. Angelito was imposing, but he was also one of the few humans among them. I wasn't sure the big man was the most dangerous person on their side. A little girl of seven or eight with dark curls cut short around an angelic face flashed dainty fangs and hissed at me. An older boy who looked like a young twelve, or an old ten, picked Musette's shoulders up, raising her limp figure off the ground as if she weighed nothing. He didn't flash fangs, he just looked at me with dark, unfriendly eyes.

A male vamp in a dark conservative suit got Musette's feet, though he made no move to take the small woman from the boy. I knew the male vamp could have carried her easily, but he didn't argue with the boy. The boy didn't lack strength, just height, and leverage.

They carried her back to Angelito, who took her from the others. Musette looked tiny held in his long arms. There were people in the room who had thicker arms than Angelito. The werehyenas were bodybuilders, but there was no one on our side that had the length and size of Musette's little angel.

Jean-Claude stood, drawing me to my feet. Damian moved as I moved. Jason, too. "We have rooms prepared for all of you. You will be escorted to them, then we will leave guards outside your doors, for the protection of all concerned."

Bobby Lee was still holding his gun nice and steady on the vamps. "Anita?" he made my name a question.

"I don't want them wandering around without guards on them, so yeah, sounds like a good idea to me. You guys able to stick around that long?"

"Honey-child, I would follow you to the ends of the earth. 'Course we can." He laid the southern accent on thick enough to walk across.

"Thanks, Bobby."

"Our pleasure."

"Meng Die, Faust, you know the way to the rooms, show our guards where to go." Meng Die was lovely, delicate, with perfectly straight black hair cut just above her shoulders; her skin was like pale porcelain. She would have looked like a perfect China doll if she hadn't liked wearing skintight black leather most of the time. The leather sort of ruined the image. She was a Master Vampire, and her animal to call, I'd been surprised to learn, was the wolf. Strangely, this didn't make her any more attractive to the wolves or me. She was just too damn unfriendly.

Faust was not much taller than Meng Die, but he didn't make you think delicate, just short. He was cheerfully attractive–like the boy next door if he happened to be a vampire–and had dyed his hair a dark wine-burgundy. His eyes were the color of new pennies as if the brown had a touch of fresh blood in it. He was a Master Vampire but not strong enough to ever be Master of the City, or at least not hold on to it. A weak Master of the City is usually a dead one.

Meng Die and Faust led the way through the drapes and the far corridor beyond. Musette's vamps went next. The wererats and the werehyenas brought up the rear. The drapes swished closed behind them. We were left alone with our thoughts. I hoped everyone else's thoughts were more useful than mine, because all I could think was that Belle wouldn't like being given her hat and shown the door. She'd find a way to make us eat the insult, if she could. Maybe she couldn't, but she was over two thousand years old, according to Jean-Claude. You didn't survive that long without knowing things, things that would make your enemies run screaming. The council member we'd killed had been able to cause earthquakes simply by thinking about it. I was pretty sure Belle had her own special tricks. I just hadn't seen them yet.

10

Less than an hour later Jean-Claude and I were in his room, alone. Damian was one of the guards outside our door. We'd split our vamps up among the wereanimals so that, hopefully, the bad vampires couldn't use mind tricks on the wereanimals without the vamps knowing it. We'd done the best we could do, which had actually been pretty damned good. The ardeurwas still in hiding. I wasn't questioning it, just grateful.

Jean-Claude's large four-poster bed was draped in blue silk, mounded with pillows in at least three vibrant shades of blue. He traded the drapes and pillows to match whatever color the sheets were, so I knew without looking that the sheets would be blue silk. Jean-Claude did not do white sheets, no matter what they were made out of.

He was sitting in the room's only chair, slumped down, hands crossed over his stomach. I was sitting on the rug that he'd put beside the bed. The rug was actually fur, thick and soft, and somehow just by touch you knew it had once been alive. We'd both been strangely reluctant to go to bed. I think we were both afraid the ardeurwould rise, and we weren't ready for it.

"Let me test my understanding," I said.

Jean-Claude looked at me, moving only his eyes.

"Tomorrow night, if Asher is still nobody's, will they be within their rights to ask for him?"

"Not as they did tonight, no, you have made that impossible now, unless they can take him by force."

I shook my head. "I've been around enough vamp politics to know that if you stop them from doing one thing, they'll do something else, not because they want to, but because it will cause you pain."

He frowned at me.

I sighed. "Let me try that again. Here's the deal, what are they within their rights to ask from us, while they're here?"

"Hunting rights, or willing donors, lovers–the basic needs to be met."

"Sex is a basic need?"

He just looked at me.

"Sorry, sorry. So I understand the willing donor part, they've got to eat. But the lovers, what does that mean, exactly?"

"It would be declasse to demand lovers for the servants, so Musette's lady's maid and butler are not to be worried over. The two children are special cases. The girl is physically too young, she does not think of such things. The boy is a problem. Bartolome was precocious, which is why Belle sent Musette to take him."

I stared at him. "Please, tell me that Musette never had sex with the kid?"

He seemed suddenly tired, rubbing his eyes with his fingertips. "Do you wish the truth, or a more pleasant lie?"

"The truth, I guess."

"Belle Morte can smell sexual appetite, it is one of her gifts. Bartolome may look like a child, but he does not think like one, nor did he when he was human and a true boy of eleven going on twelve. He was the heir to a great fortune. Belle wanted to control that fortune. He was also notorious in an age when noble sons were allowed almost any indiscretion with women who were not of noble blood."

"Explain that," I said.

"He looked like a child, Anita, and he would use that innocent face to maneuver women into compromising situations. By the time they realized that they were in danger of abuse, it was often too late. More than that, he threatened to accuse them of being the aggressor. There was no such phrase as child molestation in that century, but everyone knew it happened. Children were often married as young as ten or eleven, so the people who had such tastes could satisfy their needs within the marriage bed, until their spouses became too old for their tastes, then they would look outside their marriage, or by that time their own children might be old enough."

I stared at him. "I don't think I wanted to know that last part. That is beyond disgusting."

"Oui, ma petite,but it is still true. A fortune as large as Bartolome's would normally be Belle's task. She would never leave such monies, or lands, or titles, to anyone else. But she is not a lover of children, no matter how grown-up they may be, so she cast it to Musette. Who, as you now realize, will do anything our mistress bids her do."

"I got that impression."

"So, yes, she seduced, or allowed herself to be seduced by the boy. Belle gave her a touch of the ardeurand Bartolome was enraptured. Belle did not mean to bring him over to us as a boy. She meant to wait until he grew older, but Bartolome was thrown from his horse. He had crushed his skull, and was dying. His next brother was only five, and Belle would have no hold on him. She needed Bartolome, and so she bid Musette finish him."

"How did he feel when he woke up?"

"He was happy to be alive."

"How'd he feel when he finally realized he'd be a little boy forever, no matter how precocious?"

Jean-Claude sighed. "He was . . . unhappy. Bringing children over is forbidden for a reason. Musette did not make Valentina one of us. Belle found that one of her Master Vampires was a pedophile and had brought over children to be his permanent . . . companions." His voice went soft at the end.

I felt ill. I breathed deep and slow. "Sweet Jesus," I said.

"He had broken our prohibition against bringing over children, and when Belle Morte found out why he had done it . . . she slew him. With full permission of the council, she slew him. They destroyed most of the children he had made. They were vampires trapped in children's bodies, and they had been abused." He shook his head. "Their minds did not survive, not whole."

"So how did Valentina escape?" I asked.

"She was his newest and had yet to be touched. She was a child and a vampire but she was not mad. Belle took her in and found her people to care for her. She had human nannies for many years. She had human playmates. I must say that Belle did her best for Valentina. I think she blamed herself for not realizing what a true monster Sebastian was."

"Why do I think this ideal picture doesn't stay ideal?"

"You know us too well, ma petite.Valentina tried to turn some of her playmates into vampires, so she would not be the only one. When her nanny discovered her, Valentina slit her throat. That was the end of human nannies and human playmates."

"That's why the vampire nanny," I said.

He nodded. "She does not truly need one in the traditional sense of a child's need, but she is forever eight years old, and even today she cannot catch a taxi by herself, register in a hotel, without people wondering. Some well-meaning human will call the police to report the poor abandoned child that's staying in their hotel."

"She must hate it."

"It?"

"Her existence," I said.

He gave half a shrug. "I do not know. I do not speak to Valentina."

"You're afraid of her."

"Non, ma petite,but I am unnerved by her. The few children that survive for centuries are twisted things. It cannot be otherwise."

"How did she end up with Musette's entourage?"

"Valentina was taken before her body grew large enough for much physical pleasure. She has turned such energies into other," he licked his lips, "avenues of interest."

I sighed. "Musette is Belle's torturer, which means that Valentina is what, her little assistant in the torture?"

He nodded, head resting against the chair back, eyes closed. "Valentina has been a very apt pupil."

"She's tortured you?"

He nodded, eyes still closed. "I told you that the price for Belle saving Asher's life was my servitude for a century among them. But Belle wished to punish me for leaving her, and for a long time she gave me to pain rather than pleasure."

I went to him, crawling on the floor by his chair, smoothing my skirts down automatically, though there was no one there to see. "So Valentina won't be asking for a lover."

"Non."

"Will she try for a . . . what? Submissive?"

"Oui."

"Can we just refuse?"

"Oui."

"Can we make the 'no' stick?"

He opened his eyes and looked down at me. "I believe so, but to say absolutely would be too close to a lie."

I shook my head. "If Musette left tonight, and returned in three months, would we have less ground to stand on?"

"She will not leave, ma petite."

"No, that's not what I mean. What I mean is, if she had come in three months after good faith negotiations had gone through, would I still have been allowed to get away with what I did tonight? Or would we have faced the council's wrath?"

"We would have chosen a victim for Musette, or chosen a lover for her, or both before she arrived. It would have been settled and not a surprise."

"You know most human guests don't expect their hosts to supply them with sex partners."

"Nor do most of the bloodlines that descend from the council, but Belle's line is built upon sex, and it has become custom to offer any of Belle's line sex when they visit you. It is assumed that we all carry a touch of her succubus within us."

"That's not true," I said.

"Non, but no one of her line has ever wished to dissuade others of the lie."

I smiled, thought about laughing, and was too tired. "We can keep Willie and Hannah safe because they've got to be in charge of the two clubs. We've already negotiated that our businesses are not to be disrupted by the visit," I said.

"Belle was always one to keep her mind on where the money was coming from, so yes, Willie is my manager for The Laughing Corpse, and Hannah is temporary manager of Danse Macabre. The two weakest of my flock are safe away."

"Damian is my vampire servant, I'm your human servant, you're Master of the City, Jason is your pomme de sang,Nathaniel is my pomme de sang,Micah is my lover and my Nimir-Raj, Richard is Ulfric, and the bodyguards can't guard our bodies if they're screwing other people."

"We have made everyone as safe as we can, ma petite."

"There's one name that's conspicuously absent from that list, Jean-Claude."

"Three actually, ma petite,four if you count Gretchen."

"Gretchen is crazy, Jean-Claude. You got a special pass for her from Belle because she's still ill, right?" Gretchen had tried to kill me once, as punishment, she got locked up in a coffin for a while. The isolation had driven her even crazier.

"Oui,Gretchen will keep to her room for Musette's visit, but that does not protect Meng Die or Faust."

"Faust likes men, and to my knowledge nobody in Musette's party is gay, right?"

"Oui,but that is not always a barrier."

"We laid down the law tonight, that no one was to be hurt again. Forcing someone to have sex with a partner they find repugnant is a form of rape, and thus it's harm."

He looked at me, surprised. "Ma petite,you are becoming devious."

I shook my head. "Nope, just practical. So Faust is safe, because he only likes men and none of Musette's men likes men. Torture is out, because that's just harm."

"Meng Die will fascinate Bartolome."

"But again, Meng Die doesn't like children, so Bartolome would have to rape her to get his way with her, thus . . ."

"She is safe from his advances." He seemed to think about that for a second or two. "But what of Angelito?"

"Isn't he a couple with Musette? Aren't they doing each other?"

"When they wish to, yes."

I frowned at him. "Not a hot pair?"

"Musette's true love is not sex, which is why she and Valentina have been so close for so long."

"Not our problem. If everyone has access to someone they can fuck, or we have no suitable partners for them outside of rape, then everyone's covered. Or have I missed something?"

He thought about it quietly for a few minutes. "Non, ma petite.Your machinations are worthy of Belle herself, if her intention were to keep her people safe." Then he looked at me. "Except for one problem. Musette has had sex with Asher in the past, so you cannot make a charge of rape."

"Having sex in the past doesn't mean it can't be rape in the present," I said.

He waved that away with his hand. "I know that you believe that, ma petite,I will not even disagree, but Musette will not be dissuaded by the argument. Asher likes both men and women, he has had sex with her and enjoyed it in the past. You have made sure she cannot physically harm him, so it would be merely sex, merely fucking. He would not be harmed by that."

I raised eyebrows at him. "You believe that, that there'd be no harm to it?"

"Non, nor does Musette in truth. Musette knows, Belle knows, that to have sex with Musette again after all these years will be painful for Asher. It will harm him, but not in a way that Belle will let us negotiate around. To Belle Morte, if a man has an orgasm, then he must have enjoyed himself. It is her reasoning."

"She really doesn't understand that there's a difference between lust and love, does she?"

"Non, ma petite, tres non."

"Why is it always Asher that we can't protect? Asher that we can't save?"

He shook his head. "I have asked that for a very, very long time, ma petite.I have yet to find an answer."

I laid my cheek against his knee. "This is the longest I've ever been able to go between feedings." I glanced a my watch. "It's almost two."

"Dawn will come in three, almost four hours. I must rescind the control I have lent you for the ardeurbefore then. You must feed it."

"It's not only your control is it?"

"No, it is fear and exhaustion, and thinking too hard, and your own growing abilities. In a few more months you will be down to one feeding a day, or a night. You will be able to store up the feedings and go longer."

"My head is practically in your lap, and I don't feel the least stirrings."

He stroked my hair, and it was a comforting touch. I wanted to be held more than I wanted sex. I wanted him to hold me while I drifted off to sleep. That sounded better than anything else I could think of right now.

"Once dawn comes my tie with you will weaken, and you will not be able to keep the ardeurat bay. I am sorry, ma petite,but we must feed it."

"You're as tired as I am," I said.

"I want nothing more than to climb between the silk sheets and wrap our nude bodies around one another. I want to hold and be held. Sex is a wondrous thing, but tonight I wish to be comforted more than pleasured. I feel like a child in the dark who knows the monsters are under the bed. I want to be told it will be alright, but I am far too old to believe such comforting lies."

Maybe it was because I was tired. Maybe it was because Jean-Claude had just said out loud almost exactly how I felt. I remembered other nights when we'd all been this tired, this frightened, this unsure of what the next nightfall would bring. I remembered Asher and Julianna, and I, we, Jean-Claude holding each other. Simply holding each other, the feel of bare skin and warmth, like a grown-up version of a teddy bear. Hold me tonight,Julianna used to say, and unspoken between the two men had been how often her fears allowed them to be as close and frightened as they truly were.

Julianna had been the bridge between the two men. They would never have been able to be so close for so long without her. I had the memories, I knew how many times her needs had brought them together, her love for each of them had bound them close. Jean-Claude had been the brains, Asher the charm, though both were charming and both intelligent, but Julianna had been their heart. One living, beating heart for all three of them.

I could never be Julianna. I didn't have her kindness, her gentleness, her patience. We were so unalike, but here I was centuries later with the same two men. I let out a long breath, took in another, let it out, listened to it shake.

"Is something wrong, ma petite,I mean more wrong than I know?"

I raised my face from his knee. "If Asher was truly a menage a trois with us, then Musette would have to leave him alone, wouldn't she?"

Some expression passed over his face, quickly swallowed away, hidden behind that beautiful, polite mask he wore when he was not sure what expression would help, and what would hurt. "If we had been able to answer truthfully tonight that Asher was in our bed, then Musette could not have asked for him. This is true."

"If he joined us tonight, then tomorrow he'd be safe." My voice sounded so matter of fact, as if I were proposing we go shopping, or get dinner.

His voice was even more careful than mine. "That would be true."

"If I had just let you and Asher be a couple when I wasn't around, then he would have been safe, but I can't." I shook my head. "In theory I don't have a problem with it. I like men. I see men as attractive, so I understand everyone seeing them as attractive. That men are attracted to men makes perfect sense to me. But in practice I can't bring myself to share my man with another man. I can't do it. If I found out you and Asher had been doing it behind my back, I'd dump your ass. I know it's amazingly unfair. I'm sleeping with Micah, and damn near sleeping with Nathaniel, and was having sex with Richard until a few months ago. Yet you have to be with just me. It's monstrously unfair, I know that."

"I am not alienated from your bed when the others are with you, except for Richard, who would never share."

"I know, you get blood from the men because I still won't donate blood to you, but it's not the same."

"I want no one but you, ma petite.I have made that clear."

I looked up at him then. "You've made it clear, but I know that you do want someone else besides me. I've felt what you feel when you look at Asher. I see the way you two look at each other. It hurts sometimes just to watch you be in a room together."

"I am sorry, ma petite."

I tucked my knees to my chest and hugged them there. "Let me finish this thought, Jean-Claude, please."

He motioned for me to go ahead.

"I can't let you take Asher to your bed, and I can't take Asher to mine. But I remember what it was like for the three of you. I remember how safe it felt. There are moments when I forget that these aren't my memories and I long for what the three of you had. It seems a hell of a lot more peaceful than what we're doing."

I hugged my legs so tight, my arms trembled with the force of it. "I don't know if I can go through with it, but I'd like to try."

"Try what, ma petite?" His voice was very careful.

"I want Asher safe."

Jean-Claude had gone very still. "I do not understand, ma petite."

"Yes, you do."

He shook his head. "Non,I will have no misunderstandings here. You must be precise in your meaning."

I couldn't look at him while I said it. "Bring Asher in here for the night. I don't promise, but I want him warm and nude beside us. I want to chase that hurt from his eyes. I want to show him with my hands and my body that I find him lovely." I looked up at him, then, and found his face unreadable. "I don't know at what point I'm going to scream foul and bail on you both. I'm sure there's going to come a point, there usually is, but if we bring him into our bed tonight, in whatever way, then he's safe for tomorrow, right?"

"What will your Nimir-Raj say?"

"He assumed that you and I were intimate with Asher when he got to town. A lot of people assume it."

"You have told him the truth?"

"Yes."

"And won't he be angry about sharing you with yet another man?"

I shook my head. "Micah is more practical than I am, Jean-Claude. It's not just love, or lust, that brings me back to Asher. Tonight it's securing our power base. If Asher is safe, then we're all safer. His pain can't be used against us."

"How very practical of you, ma petite."

"I've learned from the best."

He gave me a look, one eyebrow raised. "If I were truly practical in matters of the heart, things would have gone more quickly between us."

"Maybe, or maybe not, you knew if you pushed too hard, I'd have either run, or tried to kill you."

He gave that graceful shrug. "Perhaps, but I should ask, so there are no misunderstandings, do you mean to bring Asher to our bed only for tonight?"

"Would it make a difference?" I asked.

"It may to him."

I tried to wrap my head around it all, and failed. "I don't know. I know that I don't want to give up alone time with you, just you. I know that I don't want to always have company."

"Julianna and Asher managed alone time even though we were a threesome."

"For the first time in a long time my personal life is as close as it's ever been to working. I don't want to screw that up."

"I understand."

"I guess, I want Asher safe, I want to chase that flinching out of his eyes, but in the real world we are just running this up the flagpole. If it works, great, but if it doesn't work, then what? Will Asher have to leave? Will you lose your second? Will it hurt you and Asher more? Will . . ."

He touched fingertips to my lips. "Shhh, ma petite.I have called Asher. He comes even now."

I felt my eyes go big, my breath freeze in my throat, while my pulse beat like a crazed thing. What had I done? Nothing yet. The ten thousand dollar question was, what was I about to do, and could I live with it later?