JEAN-CLAUDE WASN'T AT the Circus of the Damned. The voice on the other end of the phone at the Circus didn't recognize me and wouldn't believe I was Anita Blake, Jean-Claude's sometimes sweetie. So I'd been reduced to calling his other businesses. I'd tried Guilty Pleasures, his strip club, but he wasn't there. I tried Danse Macabre, his newest enterprise, but I was beginning to wonder if Jean-Claude had simply told everyone that he wasn't in if I called.
The thought bothered me a lot. I'd worried that after so long Richard might finally tell me to go to hell, that he'd had enough of my indecision. It had never occurred to me that Jean-Claude might not wait. If I was so unsure how I felt about him, why was my stomach squeezed tight with a growing sense of loss? The feeling had nothing to do with the wereleopards and their problems. It had everything to do with me and the fact that I suddenly felt lost. But it turned out he was at Danse Macabre, and he took my call. I had a moment for my stomach to unclench and my breath to ease out, then he was on the phone, and I was struggling to keep my metaphysical shields in place.
I hated metaphysics. Preternatural biology is still biology, metaphysics is magic, and I'm still not comfortable with it. For six months when I wasn't working, I was meditating, studying with a very wise psychic named Marianne, learning ritual magic, so I could control my God-given abilities. And so I could block the marks that bound me to Richard and Jean-Claude. An aura is like your personal protection, your personal energy. When it's healthy it keeps you safe like skin, but you get a hole in it, and infection can get inside. My aura had two holes in it, one for each of the men. I suspected that their auras had holes in them, too. Which put us all at risk. I'd blocked up my holes. Then only a few weeks ago, I'd come up against a nasty creature, a would-be god, a new category, even for me. It had been powerful enough to strip all my careful work away, leaving me raw and open again. Only the intervention of a local witch had saved me from being eaten from the aura down. I didn't have six more months of celibacy, meditation, and patience in me. The holes were there, and the only way to fill them was with Jean-Claude and Richard. That's what Marianne said, and I trusted her in a way that I trusted few others.
Jean-Claude's voice hit me over the phone like a velvet slap. My breath caught in my throat, and I could do nothing but feel the flow of his voice, the presence of him, like something alive, flowing over my skin. His voice has always been one of Jean-Claude's best things, but this was ridiculous. This was over the phone. How could I possibly see him in person and maintain my shields, let alone my composure?
"I know you are there, ma petite. Did you call merely to hear the sound of my voice?"
That was closer to the truth than was comfortable. "No, no." I still couldn't gather my thoughts. I was like an athlete who had let her training go. I just couldn't lift the same amount of weight, and there was weight to wading through Jean-Claude's power.
When I still didn't say anything, he spoke again. "Ma petite, to what do I owe this honor? Why have you deigned to call me?" His voice was bland, but there was a hint of something in it. Reproach perhaps.
I guess I had it coming. I rallied the troops and tried to sound like an intelligent human being, not always one of my best things. "It's been six months …"
"I am aware of that, ma petite."
He was being condescending. I hated that. It made me a little angry. The anger helped clear my head a little. "If you'll stop interrupting, I'll tell you why I called."
"My heart is all aflutter with anticipation."
I wanted to hang up. He was being an asshole, and part of me thought I might deserve the treatment, which made me even angrier. I'm always angriest when I think I'm in the wrong. I'd been a coward for months, and I was still a coward. I was afraid to be close to him, afraid of what I'd do. Damn it, Anita, get ahold of yourself. "Sarcasm is my department," I said.
"And what is my department?"
"I'm about to ask you for a favor," I said.
"Really?" He said it as if he might not grant it.
"Please, Jean-Claude, I'm asking for help. I don't do that often."
"That is certainly true. What would you have of me, ma petite? You know that you have but to ask, and it will be yours. No matter how angry I may be with you."
I let that comment go, because I didn't know what to do about it. "Do you know a club called Narcissus in Chains?"
He was quiet for a second or two. "Oui."
"Can you give me directions and meet me there?"
"Do you know what sort of a club this place is?"
"Are you sure?"
"It's a bondage club, I know."
"Unless the last six months has changed you greatly, ma petite, that is not one of your preferences."
"Not mine, no."
"Your wereleopards are misbehaving again?"
"Something like that." I told him what had happened.
"I do not know this Marco."
"I didn't figure you did."
"But you did think that I knew where the club was?"
"I was hoping."
"I will meet you there with some of my people. Or will you allow only me to ride to your rescue?" He sounded amused now, which was better than angry, I guess.
"Bring who you need."
"You trust my judgment?"
"In this, yeah."
"But not in all things," he said softly.
"I don't trust anyone in all things, Jean-Claude."
He sighed. "So young to be so … jaded."
"I'm cynical, not jaded."
"And the difference is what, ma petite?"
He laughed then, the sound caressing me like the brush of a hand. It made things low in my body clench. "Ah," he said, "that explains all the differences."
"Just give me directions, please." I added the "please" to speed things along.
"They will not harm your wereleopards too greatly, I think. The club is run by shapeshifters, and they will smell too much blood and take matters into their own hands. It is one of the reasons Narcissus in Chains is no-man's-land, a neutral place for the fringe of our groups. Your leopards were right, it is usually a very safe place."
"Well, Gregory wasn't screaming because he felt safe."
"Perhaps not, but I know the owner. Narcissus would be very angry if someone became overzealous in his club."
"Narcissus, I don't know the name. Well, I know the Greek mythology stuff, but I don't recognize it as local."
"I would not expect you to. He does not often leave his club. But I will call him, and he will patrol your cats for you. He will not rescue them, but he will make sure no further damage is done."
"You trust Narcissus to do this?"
Jean-Claude had his faults, but if he trusted someone, he was usually right. "Okay. And thank you."
"You are most welcome." He drew a breath, then said quietly, "Would you have called if you had not needed my help? Would you ever have called?"
I'd been dreading this question from either Jean-Claude or Richard. But I finally had an answer "I'll answer your question as best I can, but call it a hunch, it may be a long conversation. I need to know my people are safe before we start dissecting our relationship."
"Relationship? Is that what we have?" His voice was very dry.
"No, no, ma petite, I will call Narcissus now and save your cats but only if you promise that when I call back we will finish this conversation."
"Your word," he said.
"Very well, ma petite, until we speak again." He hung up.
I hung up the phone and stood there. Was it cowardly to want to call someone else, anyone else, so the phone would be busy and we wouldn't have to have our little talk? Yeah, it was cowardly, but tempting. I hated talking about my personal life, especially to the people most intimately involved in it. I had just about enough time to change out of the skirt outfit when the phone rang. I jumped and answered it with my pulse in my throat. I was really dreading this conversation.
"Hello," I said.
"Narcissus will see to your cats' safety. Now, where were we?" He was silent for a heartbeat. "Oh, yes, would you ever have called if you had not needed my help?"
"The woman I'm studying with …"
"Marianne," he said.
"Yes, Marianne. Anyway, she says that I can't keep blocking the holes in my aura. That the only way to be safe from preternatural creepy-crawlies is to fill the holes with what they were meant to hold."
Silence on the other end of the phone. Silence for so long that I said, "Jean-Claude, you still there?"
"I am here."
"You don't sound happy about this."
"Do you know what you are saying, Anita?" It was always a bad sign when he used my real name.
"I think so."
"I want this very clear between us, ma petite. I do not want you coming back to me later, crying that you did not understand how tightly this would bind us. If you allow Richard and me to truly fill the marks upon your … body, we will share our auras. Our energy. Our magic."
"We're already doing that, Jean-Claude."
"In part, ma petite, but those are side effects of the marks. This will be a willing, knowledgeable joining. Once done, I do not think it can be undone without great damage to all of us."
It was my turn to sigh. "How many vampire challenges to your authority have there been while I've been off meditating?"
"A few," he said, voice cautious.
"More than a few I'd bet, because they sensed that your defenses are not complete. You had trouble backing them down without killing them, didn't you?"
"Let us say that I am glad that there were no serious challengers over the last year."
"You'd have lost without Richard and me to back you up, and you couldn't shield yourself without us there to touch. That worked when I was in town with you. Touching, being with each other helped us plug in to each other's power. It offset the problem."
"Oui," he said, softly.
"I didn't know, Jean-Claude. I'm not sure it would have made a difference, but I didn't know. God, Richard must be desperate–he doesn't kill like we do. His bluff is all that keeps the werewolves from tearing each other apart, and with two gaping holes in his most intimate defenses …" I let my voice trail off, but I still remembered the cold horror I'd felt when I realized how much I'd endangered all of us.
"Richard has had difficulties, ma petite. But we each have only one chink in our armor, the one that only you can heal. He was driven to merge his energies with mine. As you say, his bluff is very important to him."
"I didn't know, and I'm sorry for that. All I've been thinking about was how scared I was of being overwhelmed by the two of you. Marianne told me the truth when she thought I was ready to hear it."
"And are you done being frightened of us, ma petite?" His voice was careful when he asked, as if he were carrying a very full cup of very hot liquid up a long and narrow staircase.
I shook my head, realized he couldn't see it, and said, "I'm not brave. I'm pretty much terrified. Terrified that if I do this, there is no going back, that maybe I'm fooling myself about a choice. Maybe there is no choice and hasn't been for a long time. But however we end up arranging the bedrooms, I can't let us all go around with gaping metaphysical wounds. Too many things will sense the weakness and exploit it."
"Like the creature you met in New Mexico," he said, voice still as cautious as I'd ever heard it.
"Yeah," I said.
"Are you saying that tonight you will agree to letting us merge the marks, that we will at last close these, as you so colorfully put it, wounds?"
"If it doesn't endanger my leopards, yeah. We need to do it as soon as possible. I'd hate to make the big decision and then have one of us get killed before we could batten down the hatches."
I heard him sigh, as if some great tension had left him. "You do not know how long I have waited for you to understand all this."
"You could have told me."
"You would not have believed me. You would have thought it was another trick to bind you closer to me."
"You're right, I wouldn't have believed you."
"Will Richard be meeting us at the club, as well?"
I was quiet for a heartbeat. "No, I'm not going to call him."
"Why ever not? It is a shapeshifter difficulty more than a vampire one."
"You know why not."
"You fear he will be too squeamish to allow you to do what needs doing to save your leopards."
"Perhaps," Jean-Claude said.
"You aren't going to tell me to call him?"
"Why would I ask you to invite my chief rival for your affections to this little tete-a-tete? That would be foolish. I am many things, but foolish is not one of them."
That was certainly true. "Okay, give me directions, and I'll meet you and your people at the club."
"First, ma petite, what are you wearing?"
"Clothes, ma petite, what clothes are you wearing?"
"Is this a joke? Because I don't have time …"
"It is not an idle question, ma petite. The sooner you answer, the sooner we can all leave."
I wanted to argue, but if Jean-Claude said he had a point he probably did. I told him what I was wearing.
"You surprise me, ma petite. With a little effort it should do nicely."
"I suggest you add boots to your ensemble. The ones I purchased for you would do very well."
"I am not wearing five-inch spikes anywhere, Jean-Claude. I'd break an ankle."
"I planned on you wearing those boots just for me, ma petite. I was thinking of the other boots with the milder heels that I bought when you were so very angry about the others."
Oh. "Why do I have to change shoes?"
"Because, delicate flower that you are, you have the eyes of a policeman, and so it would be better if you wore leather boots instead of high heels. It would be better if you remember that you are trying to move through the club as quickly and smoothly as possible. No one will help you find your leopards if they think you are an outsider, especially a policeman."
"Nobody ever mistakes me for a cop."
"No, but they begin to mistake you for something that smells of guns and death. Look harmless tonight, ma petite, until it is time to be dangerous."
"I thought this friend of yours, this Narcissus, would just escort us in."
"He is not my friend, and I told you the club is neutral ground. Narcissus will see that no great harm comes to your cats, but that is all. He will not let you come barging in to his world like the proverbial bull in the china shop. That, he will not allow, nor will he allow us to bring in a small army of our own. He is the leader of the werehyenas, and they are the only army allowed inside the club. There is no Ulfric, or Master of the City, within its walls. You have only the dominance you bring with you and your body to see you through."
"I'll have a gun," I said.
"But a gun will not get you into the upper rooms."
"Trust me, I will find a way."
I didn't like the sound of that at all. "Why is it that most of the time whenever I ask you for help, it's never a case where we can just run in and start shooting?"
"And why is it, ma petite, that when you do not invite me that it is almost always a case where you run in and shoot everything that moves?"
"Point taken," I said.
"What are your priorities for the night?" he asked.
I knew what he meant. "I want the wereleopards safe."
"And if they have been harmed?"
"I want vengeance."
"More than their safety?"
"No, safety first, vengeance is a luxury."
"Good. And if one, or more, is dead?"
"I don't want any of us going to jail, but eventually if not tonight, another night, they die." I listened to myself say it, and knew that I meant it.
"There is no mercy in you, ma petite."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"No, it is merely an observation."
I stood there, holding the phone, waiting to be shocked at what I was proposing. But I wasn't. I said, "I don't want to kill anyone if I don't have to."
"That is not true, ma petite."
"Fine, if they've killed my people, I want them dead. But I decided in New Mexico that I didn't want to be a sociopath, so I'm trying to act as if I'm not. So let's try to keep the body count low tonight, okay?"
"As you wish," he said. Then he added, "Do you really think that you can change the nature of what you are merely by wishing it?"
"Are you asking if I can stop being a sociopath, since I already am one?"
A moment of silence, then, "I think that is what I'm asking."
"I don't know, but if I don't pull myself back from the brink soon, Jean-Claude, there won't be any going back."
"I hear fear in your voice, ma petite."
"Yeah, you do."
"What do you fear?"
"I fear that by giving in to you and Richard that I'll lose myself. I fear that by not giving in to you and Richard I'll lose one of you. I fear that I'll get us killed because I'm thinking too much. I fear that I'm already a sociopath and there is no going back. Ronnie said that one of the reasons that I can't give you up and just settle down with Richard is that I can't give up a boyfriend who's colder than I am."
"I am sorry, ma petite." I wasn't sure exactly what he was apologizing for, but I accepted it anyway.
"Me, too. Give me directions to the club, I'll meet you there."
He gave me directions, and I read them back to him. We hung up. Neither of us said good-bye. Once upon a time we'd have ended the conversation with je t'aime, I love you. Once upon a time.
THE CLUB WAS over the river on the Illinois side, along with most of the other questionable clubs. Vampire-run businesses got a grandfather clause to operate in St. Louis proper, but the rest of the human-run clubs–and lycanthropes still counted legally as human–had to go into Illinois to avoid pesky zoning problems. Some of the zoning problems weren't even on the books, weren't even laws at all. But it was strange how many problems the bureaucrats could find when they didn't want a club in their fair city. If the vampires weren't such a big draw for tourists, the bureaucrats'd have probably found a way to get rid of them, too.
I finally found parking about two blocks from the club. It meant a walk to the club in an area of town that most women wouldn't want to be alone in after dark. Of course, most women wouldn't be armed. A gun doesn't cure all ills, but it's a start. I also had a knife sheath around each calf, very high up, so that the hilts came up on the side of my knees. I wasn't really comfortable that way, but I couldn't think of any other place to put knives so I could get to them easily. There was a very good chance I'd have bruises on my knees after tonight. Oh, well. I also had a black belt in Judo, and was making progress in Kenpo, a type of karate, one with fewer power moves and more moves using balance. I was as prepared as I could get for the wilds of the big city.
Of course, I usually don't walk around looking like bait. My skirt was so short that even with boots that came up to mid-thigh there was a good inch between the hem and the top of the boots. I'd put a jacket on for the drive, but had left it in the car because I didn't want to be carrying it around all night. I'd been in just enough clubs, whatever flavor they were, to know that inside it would be hot. So the goosebumps that traveled over my bare back and arms weren't from fear, but from the damp, chill air. I forced myself not to rub my arms as I walked and to at least look like I wasn't cold or uncomfortable. Actually the boots only had two-inch heels, and they were comfortable to walk in. Not as comfortable as my Nikes, but then, what is? But for dress shoes, the boots weren't bad. If I could have left the knives home, they'd have been peachy.
There was one other bit of protection that I'd added. Metaphysical shields come in different varieties. You can shield yourself with almost anything: metal, rock, plants, fire, water, wind, earth, etc. … Everyone has different shields because it's a very individual choice. It has to work for your own personal mindset. You can have two psychics both using stone, but the shields won't be the same. Some people simply visualize rock, the thought of it, its essence, and that's sufficient. If something tries to attack them, they are safe behind the thought of rock. Another psychic might see a stone wall, like a garden wall around an old house, and that would do the same thing. For me, the shield had to be a tower. All shields are like bubbles that surround you completely, just like circles of power. I'd always understood this when I raised the dead, but for shielding I needed to see it in my head. So I imagined a stone tower, completely enclosed, no windows, no chinks, smooth and dark inside with only what I allowed in or out. Talking about shielding always made me feel like I was having a psychotic break and sharing my delusions. But it worked, and when I didn't shield, things tried to hurt me. It had only been in the last two weeks that Marianne had discovered that I hadn't really understood shielding at all. I'd thought it was just a matter of how powerful your aura was and how you could reinforce it. She said the only reason I'd been able to get by with that for as long as I had was that I was simply that powerful. But the shielding goes outside the aura like a wall around a castle, an extra defense. The innermost defense is a healthy aura. Hopefully by the end of the night I'd have one of those.
I turned the corner and found a line of people that stretched down the block. Great, just what I needed. I didn't stop at the end of the line, I kept walking towards the door, hoping I'd think of something to tell the doorperson when I got there. I didn't have time to wait through all this. I was about halfway up the line when a figure pushed out of the crowd and called my name.
It took me a second to recognize Jason. First, he'd cut his baby-fine blond hair short, businessman short. Second, he was wearing a sheer silver mesh shirt and a pair of pants that seemed mostly made of the same stuff. Only a thin line of solid silver ran over his groin. The outfit was so eye-catching that it took me a moment to realize just how sheer the cloth was. What I was really seeing wasn't the silver, but Jason's skin through a veil of glitter. The outfit, which left precious little to the imagination, ended in calf-high gray boots.
I had to make myself look at his face, because I was still shaking my head over the outfit. The outfit didn't look comfortable, but of course, Jason rarely complained about his clothes. He was like Jean-Claude's little dress-up werewolf, as well as morning snack. Sometimes bodyguard and sometimes a fetch-and-carry boy. Who else could Jean-Claude get to stand out in the cold, nearly naked?
Jason's eyes looked bigger, bluer somehow, without all the hair to distract your eye. His face looked older with the shorter hair, the bone structure cleaner, and I realized that Jason was perilously close to that line between cute and handsome. He'd been nineteen when we met. Twenty-two looked better on him. But the outfit–there was nothing to do but grin at the outfit.
He was grinning at me, too. I think we were both happy to see each other. In leaving Richard and Jean-Claude I'd left their people behind, too. Jason was Richard's pack member, and Jean-Claude's lap wolf.
"You look like a pornographic space man. If you were wearing street clothes, you might have gotten a hug," I said.
His smile flashed even wider. "I guess I'm dressed for punishment. Jean-Claude told me to wait for you and take you in. My hand's already got a stamp on it so we can just go straight inside."
"A little cold for the clothes, isn't it?"
"Why do you think I was standing deep in the crowd?" He offered me his arm. "May I escort you inside, my lady?"
I took his arm with my left hand. Jason put his free hand on top of mine, doing a double hold. If that was the worst teasing he did tonight, then he'd grown up some. The silver cloth was rougher than it looked, scratchy where it rubbed against my arm.
As Jason led me up the steps, I had to look behind him. The cloth that covered his groin was only a thin thong at the back, leaving nothing but a fine glitter over his butt. The shirt was not attached to the pants, so as he moved I got glimpses of his stomach. In fact the shirt was loose enough through the shoulders that when he took my arm the shirt pulled to one side, revealing his smooth, pale shoulder.
The music hit me at the door like a giant's slap. It was almost a wall we had to move through. I hadn't expected Narcissus in Chains to be a dance club. But except for the patrons' clothing being more exotic and running high to leather, it looked like a lot of other clubs. The place was large, dimly lit, dark in the corners, with too many people pushed into too small a space, moving their bodies frantically to music that was way too loud.
My hand tightened just a touch on Jason's arm, because truthfully I always feel a little overwhelmed by places like this. At least for the first few minutes. It's like I need a depth chamber between the outside world and the inside world, a moment to breath deep and adjust. But these clubs are not designed to give you time. They just bombard you with sensory overload and figure you'll survive.
Speaking of sensory overload, Jean-Claude was standing near the wall just to one side of the dance floor. His long black hair fell in soft curls around his shoulders, nearly to his waist. I didn't remember his hair being that long. He had his head turned away from me, watching the dancers, so I couldn't really see his face, but it gave me time to look at the rest of him. He was dressed in a black vinyl shirt that looked poured on. It left his arms bare, and I realized I'd never seen him in anything that bared his arms before. His skin looked unbelievably white against the shiny black vinyl, almost as if it glowed with some inner light. I knew it didn't, though it could. Jean-Claude would never be so declasse as to show such power in a public place. His pants were made of the same shiny vinyl, making the long lines of his body look like they had been dipped into liquid patent leather. Vinyl boots came up just over his knees, gleaming as if they'd been spit polished. Everything about him gleamed, the dark glow of his clothes, the shining whiteness of his skin. Then abruptly he turned as if he felt me gazing at him.
Staring full into his face, even from across a room, made me catch my breath. He was beautiful. That heartrending beauty that was masculine but treaded the line between what was male and what was female. Not exactly androgynous, but close to it.
But as he moved towards me, the movement was utterly male, graceful as if he heard music in his head that he quietly danced to. But the walk, the movement of his shoulders–women did not move like that.
Jason patted my hand.
I jumped, staring at him.
He put his mouth close enough to my ear to whisper-shout above the music, "Breathe, Anita, remember to breathe."
I blushed, because that was how Jean-Claude affected me–like I was fourteen and was having the crush of my life. Jason tightened his grip on me, as if he thought I might make a run for it. Not a bad idea. I looked back, and saw that Jean-Claude was very near. The first time I saw the blue-green roil of the Caribbean, I cried, because it was so beautiful. Jean-Claude made me feel like that, like I should weep at his beauty. It was like being offered an original da Vinci, not just to hang on your wall and admire, but to roll around on top of. It seemed wrong. Yet I stood there, clutching Jason's arm, my heart hammering so hard I almost couldn't hear the music. I was scared, but it wasn't knife-in-the-dark scared, it was rabbit-in-the-headlights scared. I was caught, as I usually was with Jean-Claude, between two disparate instincts. Part of me wanted to run to him, to close the distance and climb his body and pull it around me. The other part wanted to run screaming into the night and pray he didn't follow.
He stood in front of me, but made no move to touch me, to close that last small space. He seemed as unwilling to touch me as I was to touch him. Was he afraid of me? Or did he sense my own fear and fear he might scare me off? We stood there simply staring at each other. His eyes were still the same dark, dark blue, with a wealth of black lashes lacing them.
Jason kissed my cheek, lightly, like you'd kiss your sister. It still made me jump. "I'm feeling like a third wheel. You two play nice." And he pulled away from me, leaving Jean-Claude and me staring at each other.
I don't know what we would have said, because three men joined us before we could decide. The shortest of the three was only about five feet seven, and he was wearing more makeup on his pale triangular face than I was. The makeup was well done, but he wasn't trying to look like a woman. His black hair was cut very short, though you could tell that it would be curly if it was long. He was wearing a black lace dress, long-sleeved, fitted at the waist, showing a slender but muscular chest. The skirt spilled out around him, almost June Cleaverish, and his stockings were black, with a very delicate spiderweb pattern. He wore open-toed sandals with spike heels, and both his toenails and his fingernails were painted black. He looked … lovely. But what made the outfit was the sense of power in him. It hung around him like an expensive perfume, and I knew he was an alpha something.
Jean-Claude spoke first. "This is Narcissus, owner of this establishment."
Narcissus held out his hand. I was momentarily confused about whether I was supposed to shake the hand or kiss it. If he'd been trying to pass for a woman, I'd have known the kiss would have been appropriate, but he wasn't. He wasn't so much cross-dressing as just dressing the way he wanted. I shook his hand. The grip was strong, but not too strong. He didn't try and test my strength, which some lycanthropes will do. He was secure, was Narcissus.
The two men behind him loomed over all of us, each well over six feet. One had a wide, muscular chest that was left mostly bare through a complicated crisscross of black leather straps. He had blond hair, cut very short on the sides and gelled into short spikes on top. His eyes were pale, and the look in them was not friendly. The second man was slimmer, built more like a professional basketball player than a weightlifter. But the arms that showed from the leather vest were corded with muscle all the same. His skin was almost as dark as the leather he was wearing. All these two needed were a couple of tattoos apiece, and they would have screamed badass.
Narcissus said, "This is Ulysses and Ajax." Ajax was the blond, and Ulysses was the oh-so brunette.
"Greek myths, nice naming convention," I said.
Narcissus blinked large dark eyes at me. Either he didn't think I was funny, or he simply didn't care. The music stopped abruptly. We were suddenly standing in a great roaring silence, and it was shocking. Narcissus spoke at a level where I could hear him, but people nearby couldn't. He'd known the music would stop. "I know your reputation, Ms. Blake. I must have the gun."
I glanced at Jean-Claude.
"I did not tell him."
"Come, Ms. Blake, I can smell the gun, even over …" He sniffed the air, head tilted back just a little, "your Oscar de la Renta."
"I went to a different oil for cleaning, one with less odor," I said.
"It's not the oil. The gun is new, I can smell the … metal, like you would smell a new car."
Oh. "Did Jean-Claude explain the situation to you?"
Narcissus nodded. "Yes, but we do not play favorites in dominance struggles between different groups. We are neutral territory, and if we are to remain so, then no guns. If it is any comfort, we didn't let the ones who have your cats bring guns into the club either."
I widened my eyes at that. "Most shapeshifters don't carry guns."
"No, they do not." Narcissus's handsome face told me nothing. He was neither upset nor concerned. It was all just business to him–like Marco's voice on the phone.
I turned back to Jean-Claude. "I'm not getting into the club with my gun, am I?"
"I fear not, ma petite."
I sighed and turned back to the waiting–what had Jean-Claude called them– werehyenas. They were the first I'd met, as far as I knew. There was no clue from looking at them what they became when the moon was full. "I'll give it up, but I'm not happy about this."
"That is not my problem," Narcissus said.
I met his eyes and felt my face slip into that look that could make a good cop flinch–my monster peeking out. Ulysses and Ajax started to move in front of Narcissus, but he waved them back. "Ms. Blake will behave herself. Won't you, Ms. Blake?"
I nodded, but said, "If my people get hurt because I don't have a gun, I can make it your problem."
"Ma petite," Jean-Claude said, his voice warning me.
I shook my head. "I know, I know, they're like Switzerland, neutral. Personally, I think neutral is just another way of saving your own ass at the expense of someone else's."
Narcissus took a step closer, until only a few inches separated us. His otherworldly energy danced along my skin, and as had happened in New Mexico with a very different wereanimal, it called that piece of Richard's beast that seemed to live inside me. It brought that power in a rush down my skin, to jump the distance between us, and mingle with Narcissus's power. It startled me. I hadn't thought it could happen with shields in place. Marianne had said that my abilities lay with the dead, and that was why I couldn't control Richard's power as easily as I could Jean-Claude's. But I should have been able to shield against a stranger. It scared me a little that I couldn't.
It had been wereleopards and werejaguars in New Mexico. They had mistaken me for another lycanthrope. Narcissus made the same mistake. I saw his eyes widen, then narrow. He glanced at Jean-Claude, and he laughed. "Everyone says you're human, Anita." He raised a hand and caressed the air just above my face, touching the swirl of energy. "I think you should come out of the closet before someone gets hurt."
"I never said I was human, Narcissus. But I'm not a shapeshifter either."
He rubbed his hand along the front of his dress, as if trying to get the feeling of my power off his skin. "Then what are you?"
"If things go badly tonight, you'll find out."
His eyes narrowed again. "If you cannot protect your people without guns, then you should step down as their Nimir-Ra and let someone else have the job."
"I've got an interview set up day after tomorrow with a potential Nimir-Raj."
He looked genuinely surprised. "You know that you don't have the power to rule them?"
I nodded. "Oh, yeah, I'm only temporary until I can find someone else. If the rest of you weren't so damn species conscious, I'd have farmed them out to another group. But no one wants to play with an animal that isn't the same as them."
"It is our way, it has always been our way."
And I knew the "our" didn't mean just werehyenas but all the shifters. "Yeah, well it sucks."
He smiled then. "I don't know whether I like you, Anita, but you are different, and I always appreciate that. Now give up the gun like a good little girl, and you can enter my territory." He held his hand out.
I stared at the hand. I didn't want to give up my gun. What I'd told Ronnie was true. I couldn't arm wrestle them, and I would lose a fair fight. The gun was my equalizer. I had the two knives, but frankly, they were for emergencies.
"It is your choice, ma petite."
"If it will help you make the choice," Narcissus said, "I have put two of my own personal guards in the room with your leopards. I have forbidden the others from causing further harm to your people until you arrive. Until you enter the upper room where they're waiting, nothing more will happen that they don't want to happen." Knowing Nathaniel, that wasn't as comforting as it could have been.
If anyone would understand the problem, it would be someone who ran a club like this. "Nathaniel is one of those bottoms that will ask for more punishment than he can survive. He has no stopping point, no ability to keep himself safe. Do you understand?"
Narcissus's eyes widened just a touch. "Then what was he doing here without a top of his own?"
"I sent him out with one that was supposed to watch over him tonight. But Gregory said that Elizabeth deserted Nathaniel early in the evening."
"Is she one of your leopards, too?"
"She's defying you."
"I know. The fact that Nathaniel suffers for it doesn't seem to bother her."
He studied my face. "I don't see anger in you about this."
"If I was angry at everything Elizabeth did to piss me off, I'd never be anything else." Truthfully, I was just tired. Tired of having to rescue the pack from one emergency after another. Tired of Elizabeth being up in my face and not taking care of the others, even though she was supposedly dominant to them. I'd avoided punishing her, because I couldn't beat her up, which was what she needed. The only thing I could do was shoot her. I'd been trying to avoid that, but she just may have pushed me far enough that I was out of options. I'd see what actual damage had been done. If anyone died because of her, then she would follow. I hated the fact that I didn't care whether I killed her. I'd known her off and on for over a year. I should have cared, but I didn't. I didn't like her, and she'd been asking for it for as long as I'd known her. My life would be simpler if she were dead. But there had to be a better reason to kill someone than that. Didn't there?
"Some advice," Narcissus said. "All dominance challenges, especially from your own people, must be handled quickly, or the problem will spread."
"Thanks. Actually, I knew that."
"Still she defies you."
"I've been trying to avoid killing her."
We looked at each other very quietly, and he gave a small nod. "Your gun, please."
I sighed and raised the front of my shirt, though the material was stiff enough that I had to roll it back to expose the butt of the gun. I lifted the gun out and checked the safety out of habit, though I knew it was on.
Narcissus took the gun. The two bodyguards had moved, blocking the crowd's view of us. I doubted most people knew what we'd just done. Narcissus smiled as I rolled my shirt back into place over the now-empty holster. "Truthfully, if I didn't know who you were and what your reputation was, I wouldn't have smelled the gun, because I wouldn't have been trying to. Your outfit doesn't look like it could hide a gun this big."
"Paranoia is the mother of invention," I said.
He gave a small bow of his head. "Now enter and enjoy the delights, and the terrors, of my world." With that rather cryptic phrase, he and his bodyguards moved through the crowd, taking my gun with them.
Jean-Claude trailed his fingers down my arm, and that one small movement turned me towards him, my skin shivering. Tonight was complicated enough without this level of sexual tension.
"Your cats are well until you enter the upper room. I suggest we do the mark now, first."
"Why?" I asked, my pulse suddenly in my throat.
"Let us go to our table, and I will explain." He moved off through the crowd, without touching me further. I followed and couldn't stop myself from watching the way the vinyl fit him from behind. I loved watching him walk, whether he was coming or going–a double threat.
The tables were small, and there weren't many of them crowded against the walls. But they'd cleared the dance floor so they could set up for some sort of show or demonstration. Men and women dressed in leather were setting up a framework of metal with lots of leather straps. I was reeeally hoping to be elsewhere before the show started.
Jean-Claude took me to one side before we got to the table that Jason and three complete strangers were gathered around. He stepped in so close to me that a hard thought would have made our bodies touch. I pressed myself against the wall and tried not to breathe. He put his mouth against my ear and spoke so low what came out was merely the soft sound of his breath against my skin. "We will all be safer when the marks are married, but there are other … benefits to it. I have many lesser vampires that I have brought into my territory in the last few months, ma petite. Without you at my side, I dared not bring in greater powers, for fear that I could not hold them. Once the marks are married between us, you will be able to sense those vampires that are mine. The exception, as always, is a Master Vampire. They can hide their allegiances better than the rest. The marriage of marks will also let my people know who you are, and what will happen to them if they overstep their bounds with you."
I spoke, lips barely moving, lower than he had spoken, because he could still hear me. "You've had to be very careful, haven't you?"
He rested his cheek against my face for a moment. "It has been a delicate dance to choreograph."
I had gone into this evening with my metaphysical shield tight in place. Marianne had taught me that with my aura ruptured, the other shielding was of paramount importance. I shielded with stone tonight, perfect, seamless stone. Nothing could get in, or out, without my permission. Except Narcissus's power had already danced inside my shields. I was afraid that touching Jean-Claude would be enough to shatter the stone, but it wasn't. I wasn't even aware of the shielding, unless I really concentrated. It could stay in place even when I slept. Only when you were attacked did you have to concentrate, if you were good at shielding. I'd spent a week at the beginning of the month in Tennessee with Marianne, working on nothing but this. I wasn't great at it, but I wasn't bad either.
My shields were in place. My emotions were drowning in Jean-Claude, but my psyche wasn't, which meant that Marianne was right. I could hold the dead outside my shield easier than the living. This gave me the courage to do a little more. I leaned my face against Jean-Claude's, and nothing happened. Oh, the feel of his skin against mine sent a thrill through my body, but my shields never wavered. I felt some tension that I hadn't even known was there ease out of me. I wanted him to hold me. It wasn't just sex. If that was all it was, I could have been rid of him long ago. He must have felt it, too, because his hands rested lightly on my bare arms. When I didn't protest, his hands caressed my skin, and that small movement brought my breath to a sigh.
I leaned into him, wrapping my arms around his waist, pressing the lines of our bodies together. I rested my head on his chest, and I could hear his heart beating. It didn't always beat, but tonight it did. We held each other, and it was nearly chaste, just a renewal of the fact that we were touching again. I'd worked on the metaphysical stuff so I could do this and not lose myself. It had been worth the effort.
He pulled back first, enough to look into my face. "We can marry the marks here, or find somewhere more private." He wasn't whispering as much as before. Apparently he didn't care now if others knew what we were doing.
"I'm not clear on what marrying the marks means."
"I thought your Marianne had explained it to you."
"She said we'll fit together like puzzle pieces and there'll be a release of power when it happens. But she also said that the manner in which it is done is individual to the participants."
"You sound as if you are quoting."
He frowned, and even that small movement was somehow fascinating. "I do not want you to be unpleasantly surprised, ma petite. I am striving for honesty, since you value it so highly. I have never done this with anyone, but most things are sexual between us, whether we will or no, so it is likely this will be, too."
"I can't leave the leopards here long enough to grab a hotel room, Jean-Claude."
"They will not be harmed. Until you go upstairs, they will be safe."
I shook my head and pulled away from him. "I'm sorry, but I am not leaving here without them. If you want to do this afterwards, that's fine with me, but the leopards are priority. They're waiting for me to rescue them. I can't go off and have what amounts to metaphysical sex while they're afraid and bleeding somewhere."
"No, it cannot wait. I want us to have this done before the fight begins. I do not like that your gun is gone."
"Will this marriage of the marks give me more … abilities?"
"And you, what do you get out of it?" I was standing against the wall now, not touching him.
"My own defenses will be strong once more, and I will gain power, as well. You know that."
"Are there any surprises connected with this that I should know about?"
"As I said, I have never done this with anyone, nor have I seen it done. It will be as much a surprise to me as to you."
I stared up into his lovely eyes and wished I believed that.
"I see the distrust in your eyes, ma petite. But it is not me that you do not trust. It is your power. Nothing ever goes as it should with you, ma petite, because you are like no power come before you. You are wild magic, untamed. You throw the best of plans to the wind."
"I've been learning control, Jean-Claude."
"I hope it is enough."
"You're scaring me."
He sighed. "And that was the last thing I wished to do."
I shook my head. "Look, Jean-Claude, I know everyone keeps saying my people are fine, but I want to see for myself, so let's just get this done."
"This should be something special and mystical, ma petite."
I looked around the club. "Then we need a different setting."
"I agree, but the setting was your choosing, not mine."
"But you're the one insisting on it having to be right now before all the fireworks start."
"True." He sighed and held out his hand to me. "Come, let us at least go to our table."
I actually thought about refusing his hand. Funny how quickly I could go from wanting to jump his bones to wanting to be rid of him. Of course, it wasn't exactly him, but more the complications that came with him. The mystical stuff between us was never simple. He said that was my fault, and maybe it was. Jean-Claude was a pretty standard Master Vampire, and Richard, a pretty standard Ulfric. They were both wonderfully powerful, but there was nothing too terribly extraordinary in their powers. Well, there was one thing about Jean-Claude. He could gain power by feeding off sexual energy. In another century he'd have been called an incubus. It's rare even for a Master Vamp to have a secondary way to gain power outside of blood. So it was impressive, sort of. The only other masters I'd met who could feed off of something other than blood had fed on terror. And of the two, I preferred lust. At least no one had to bleed for it. Usually. But I was the wild card, the one whose powers seemed to fit nothing but legends of necromancers long dead. Legends so old that no one believed they could be true, until I came along. Sad, but true.
The table had cleared out while we were whispering. Now just Jason and one other man were there. The man was dressed in brown leather, from what I could see of his pants to the zipped-front, sleeveless shirt he was wearing. He was also wearing one of those hoods that left your mouth, part of your nose, and your eyes bare, but covered the rest of your face. Frankly, I found the hoods creepy, but hey, it wasn't my bread that was being buttered. As long as he didn't try anything with me, we were cool. It wasn't until he looked up into my face that I recognized those pale, pale blue eyes–the startling ice blue eyes of a Siberian Husky. No human I'd ever met had eyes like that.
"Asher," I said.
He smiled then, and I recognized the curve of his lips. I knew why he'd worn the hood. It wasn't sexual preference, or at least I didn't think so. It was to hide the scars. Once, about two hundred years ago, some well-meaning church officials had tried to burn the devil out of Asher. They'd done it with holy water. Holy water is like acid on vampire flesh. He'd once been, in his own way, as breathtaking as Jean-Claude. Now half his face was a melted ruin, half his chest, most of the one thigh I'd seen. What I'd seen of the rest of him was perfect, as perfect as the day he died. And the parts I hadn't seen, I wasn't sure I wanted to know about. Through Jean-Claude's marks I had memories of Asher before. I knew what his body looked like in smooth perfection–every inch of it. Asher and his human servant, Julianna, had been part of a menage a trois with Jean-Claude for about twenty years. She'd been burned as a witch, and Jean-Claude had only been able to save Asher after the damage had been done.
The events were over two hundred years old, yet they both still mourned Julianna, and each other. Asher was now Jean-Claude's second in command, but they were not lovers. And they were uneasy friends, because there was still too much left unspoken between them. Asher still blamed Jean-Claude for failing them, and Jean-Claude had a hard time arguing with that, because deep down he still blamed himself, too.
I leaned down and gave Asher a quick kiss on the leather cheek. "What did you do with all your long hair? Please tell me you haven't cut it."
He raised my hand to his mouth and laid a gentle kiss on it. "It is braided, and longer than ever."
"I can hardly wait to see it," I said. "Thanks for coming."
"I would move all of hell to reach your side, you know that."
"You French guys do talk pretty," I said. He laughed softly.
Jason interrupted. "I think the show is about to start." I turned and watched a woman being led towards the framework that had been erected. She was wearing a robe, and I really didn't want to see what was under it.
"Whatever we're going to do, let's do it and go get the leopards."
"You don't want to see the show?" Jason asked. His eyes were all innocent, but his smile was teasing.
I just frowned at him. But his eyes looked behind me, and I knew someone Jason didn't like was coming towards us. I turned to find Ajax standing there. He ignored me and spoke to Jean-Claude. "You have fifteen minutes, then the show starts."
Jean-Claude nodded. "Tell Narcissus I appreciate the notice."
Ajax gave a small head bow, much like his master had done before, then walked off through the tables.
"What was all that about?" I asked.
"It would be considered rude to do something magical during someone else's performance. I told Narcissus that we would be calling some … power."
I must have looked as suspicious as I felt. "You are beginning to piss me off with this cloak-and-dagger magic act."
"You are a necromancer, and I am the Master Vampire of this city. Do you really believe that we can merge our powers and not have every undead in this room, and more, notice it? I do not know if the shapeshifters will be able to feel it, but it is likely, since we are also both bound to a werewolf. Everything nonhuman in this club will feel something. I don't know how much, or exactly what, but something, ma petite. Narcissus would have taken it as a grave insult if we had interrupted this performance without warning him."
"I don't mean to rush you," Asher said, "but you will use up your time in talking if you are not quick about it."
Jean-Claude looked at him, and the look was not entirely friendly. What was happening between them that Jean-Claude would give such a look to Asher?
Jean-Claude held his hand out to me. I hesitated a second, then slid my hand into his and he led me to the wall near the table. "Now what?" I asked.
Now you must drop your shields, ma petite, that so-strong barrier you have erected between me and your aura."
I just stared at him. "I don't want to do that."
"I would not ask if it were not necessary, ma petite. But even if I were able to do it, neither of us would enjoy me breaking down your shielding. We cannot merge our auras if my aura cannot touch yours."
I was suddenly scared. Really seriously scared. I didn't know what would happen if I dropped the shields with him right there. In times of crisis our auras flared together forming a unique whole. I didn't want to do this. I am a control freak, and everything about Jean-Claude ate at the part of me that most needed control.
"I'm not sure I can do this."
He sighed. "It is your choice. I will not force it, but I fear the consequences, ma petite. I do fear them."
Marianne had given me the lecture, and it was really too late to get cold feet. I could either move forward with this, or eventually one of us would die. Probably me. Part of my job was going up against preternatural monsters– things with enough magic to sense a hole in my defenses. Before I'd ever been able to sense auras, or at least before I knew that I was doing it, my aura had been intact. With my own natural talent, that had been enough. But lately I seemed to be running up against bigger, badder monsters. Eventually, I would lose. That, I might have been able to live with, sort of. But costing Jean-Claude or Richard their lives? That I couldn't handle. I knew all the reasons I should do this, and still I stood there gazing up at Jean-Claude, my heart beating in my throat, my shields tight in place. The front part of my brain knew this needed doing. The back part of my brain wasn't so sure.
"Once I drop my shield, then what?"
"We touch," he said.
I took a deep breath in and blew it out as if I were about to run a race. Then I dropped my shields. It wasn't like tearing down the stone walls; it was like absorbing them back into my psyche. The tower was just suddenly not there, and Jean-Claude's power crashed over me. It wasn't only that I felt the sexual attraction in full force, I could feel his heartbeat in my head. I could taste his skin in my mouth. I knew he'd fed tonight, though intellectually I'd known that when I heard his heart beating. Now, I could feel that he was well fed and full of someone else's blood.
His hand moved towards me, and I flattened against the wall. The hand kept moving, and I pulled away from it. I moved away because more than anything in the world at that moment I wanted him to touch me. I wanted to feel his hand against my bare skin. I wanted to rip the vinyl from his body and watch him, pale and perfect above me. The image was so clear that I closed my eyes against it, as if that would help.
I felt him in front of me, knew he was leaning close. I ducked under his arm and was suddenly standing by the table, leaving him near the wall. I kept backing up, and he kept watching me. Someone touched me, and I screamed.
Asher was holding my arm, gazing up at me with those pale eyes of his. I could feel him, too, feel the weight of his age, the heft of his power in my head. That was my power, but I realized in shielding so strongly from Jean-Claude I'd also cut myself off from some of my own powers. Shielding was a tricky thing. I guess I still didn't have the hang of it.
Jean-Claude moved away from the wall, holding one slender hand out to me. I backed up, Asher's hand sliding over my arm as I pulled away. I was shaking my head back and forth, back and forth.
Jean-Claude walked slowly towards me. His eyes had gone drowning blue, the pupil swallowed by his own power. I knew with a sudden clarity that it wasn't his power or lust that had called his eyes, it was mine. He could feel how my body tightened, moistened, as he moved towards me. It wasn't him I didn't trust. It was me.
I took one step backwards and fell on the small step leading down to the dance floor. Someone caught me before I hit the floor, strong arms around my waist, pressing me against the bare skin of a very masculine chest. I could feel that without looking. I was held effortlessly, feet dangling, and I knew those arms, the feel of that chest, the smell of his skin this close. I craned my head backwards and found myself staring at Richard.READ MORE >>