I looked up to find the six-foot-tall guard coming down the hallway behind Nathaniel and the twins. He looked slender until you noticed the muscle definition that the short-sleeved T-shirt didn't hide. He was wearing one of the black body-armor vests that we'd started giving the guards an option to wear. Most of the ones who were wearing one put a man's sleeveless undershirt under the vest, then a larger-than-normal shirt over the vest, and then a suit jacket over the top of that so they were layered and it wasn't obvious that they were wearing body armor. Bram's vest was on the outside of a form-fitting black T-shirt. The big Glock .45 in its hip holster, complete with a strap around his thigh to hold the gun in place so he always knew where it was in relation to his body, wasn't going to be hidden by a suit jacket. He and several of the other ex-military guards had started dressing in a civilian version of full battle rattle, at least inside the Circus. Bram's recently cut hair was back to military short. He'd tried to let it grow out, but it was curlier than mine or Micah's. He could grow an Afro for real and he wasn't prepared to deal with it.
He came up behind Rodina and she moved so that she didn't give him her back. It wasn't that she thought he'd hurt her; it was just automatic. It meant there'd be no more hugging with Nathaniel unless he moved closer to her, and if he did, we'd be having a talk later. Our poly wasn't closed poly, which would have meant that we were "monogamous" within our poly group and no one else could be added; because we weren't closed poly, new lovers could be added if everyone agreed to it. We had veto power over new people coming in, but it was a possibility. Until a few minutes ago I'd have said that there were no new candidates on the horizon.
"I'll ask again: What did I miss?" Bram said.
"Nothing," I said.
"Do I state the obvious?" he asked.
"Drop it and I'll fill you in later," Nicky said.
"There's nothing to fill in," I said.
Micah took my hand in his and tried to hug me, but I put a hand on his chest and shook my head. Hugging was too much touching for the level of anger I was experiencing. Too much touching when I was this pissed just made it worse.
"Is this 'nothing' going to impact our ability to guard you?" Bram asked.
"We're ready and willing to give our lives in defense of our queen and her princes," Rodina said.
The anger flared hotter at her wording. I glared at her because I knew it had been a deliberate reminder of her brother's sacrifice, which I did not need. My inner beasts began to stir, rising to the bait of my rage. I knew the anger was disproportionate to what had just happened. I knew it was because of other emotions--fear, sorrow, love, hate, lust, confusion--and all those emotions were translating into anger, because being angry felt better than being afraid or sad. Anger was what I put in front of love, if loving someone confused me too much, like Nathaniel's attention to Rodina was confusing me now. Anger had been my coping mechanism for most of my life. Therapy was helping me find other ways of coping, but it hadn't gotten rid of my anger issues. It was just helping me not let my inner rage tear my life apart anymore.
I went to stand against the cool stone wall of the hallway. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and started counting while I took deep, even breaths. I had to get a handle on this, damn it. I sank in against the cool stone, placing my palms flat against it so I could feel the grain of the stone, the chill of it. I pressed my feet into my boots so that I could feel that I was standing here in my human body. This was me. I grounded myself in the feeling of myself leaning against the wall, and then I let myself notice the beasts inside me. One of the things that you have to do to stay sane when you catch lycanthropy is to find a visualization, a way to "see" your inner beasts, because otherwise they just try to claw their way out of you. It's as if giving your human mind something to concentrate on that makes sense to it gives you more control over the animal parts. I saw the place where they lived inside me as darkness, the darkness at the center of me, like a well, but the moment I "looked" at it, the darkness became hints of jungle and trees, and there was ground for the beasts to stand on, for me to stand on. I'd worked hard so that I could draw them out one at a time rather than as a snarling mass. Thanks to Jean-Claude's vampire marks, I couldn't actually change shape to any of my beasts, so having that mob of claws and teeth trying to work its way out of me had hurt like hell, with no possible relief. My frustrated beasts and I had been forced to find a compromise.
I looked into that dark, shadowy place deep inside me and called, or thought, and the first image to gleam to life was a lion, but it wasn't my usual gold lioness; it was a big male with a thick reddish black mane. My pulse sped, heart rate faster, and that let him step farther out of the shadows and growl at me. He put one big clawed foot onto the ground and snarled up at me with amber eyes so dark they looked orange.
"You're new," I said, and it must have been out loud, because Micah was there, asking, "What's new?"
I spoke carefully, softly, as if the lion were down the hallway and I didn't want to spook it. "Male lion."
"Where's your lioness?" he asked.
I thought about it, and she was there, beside him, as if the darkness turned gold and grew fur and golden-amber eyes. She panted up at me, and there was something in her . . . face. It was a demand, a question, except that's not how lions think, not real ones, anyway; but then, she'd been trapped inside me for a few years now. It made us both a little confused.
I stared into her deep golden eyes and heard/felt/knew she wanted what was beside her in the dark. The big male looked up at me with his orange eyes and I realized he wasn't as real as she was, not yet.
I heard noise outside myself, like someone sniffing the air, felt the displacement of space as someone larger than me or Micah got too close. My lioness snarled at that, and the sound trickled across my human lips. Fuck, that wasn't good.
"It's me," Nicky said. "You smell like lion." He put his arm near my face so that I could smell the faint scent of lion on his skin, drawn to the surface by the nearness of mine. My lioness growled and hissed at the scent. That wasn't right either; it should have calmed her down. The big male beside her gave a coughing roar--not the big one that we all think is the only roar, like the Hollywood lion, but the more typical cough.
"Whatever just happened, my lion doesn't like it at all," Nicky said.
"Male coughed, roared," I said.
"You can't have a male lion inside you, Anita," he said.
"Lioness wants him."
"I'm right here," Nicky said.
I felt my head shake as I stared into the lioness's amber eyes. "You're my Bride; you can't be my lion to call; you can't be both."
"I know that."
I stared into her amber eyes until it was like falling into them, almost like falling into a vampire's gaze; so many impossibilities. I let myself fall, let myself lean my forehead against hers the way a housecat will bump its head against you. I felt the fur of her face under my hand; for a second it was more real than the wall I knew I was touching. She and I leaned against each other for a moment, and I knew what she was trying to tell me.
She vanished into the darkness like smoke, and I knew the big male would be gone with her, because he wasn't as real as she was; he wasn't as real as the other movements in the dark: Leopard, wolf, rat, hyena, and a rainbow of tigers moved like thick shadows in the dark. The lioness was the most real of them for some reason. I didn't know if they had agreed to that among themselves, or if she was just that strong, but then I knew as if I'd always known. It was her need that was stronger than theirs. She had been inside me longer than rat or hyena, and they were the only ones that didn't have a mate on the outside of me. The lioness wanted a lion to call.
I opened my eyes, utterly calm, and told Micah and Nicky and everyone else in the hallway what had happened. "Can she do that? The lioness, I mean? Can she create a male . . . counterpart inside Anita?" Nathaniel asked.
"No," Nicky said.
"Did you smell a second lion on her skin?" Micah asked.
"No, just her lioness."
"That's all I smelled as well, so the male lion wasn't real."
"Her lioness is more powerful than normal because Anita is more powerful than normal," Rodina said.
"It's never done anything like this before," I said.
"I've never heard of anyone's beast being able to do this," Micah said.
"Our old queen could call all the cat lycanthropes," Rodina said.
"Moroven had seals as her animal to call," I said.
"She was M'lady, not our dark queen."
"My sister means the Mother of All Darkness," Ru said.
"What does that have to do with anything?" I asked.
It was Bram who said it. "I think she's saying that your cat forms may have gotten a boost of power from you killing the dark mother."
"I killed her a couple of years ago; nothing like this has happened before."
"But you only killed Moroven a few months ago, less than a year," Rodina said.
"I didn't think I gained any power from that; I mean, it wasn't even me that actually killed her."
"Moroven believed that when you slew the Mother of All Darkness, her power scattered, seeking out vampires that were suitable for each power. She thought she had gained all the power except what went to the old council member, the Lover of Death, and you. You killed him, and his power went to you, so she was going to kill you and get it all."
"I remember her doing her villain speech and explaining all this while I was chained up," I said, scowling at her.
"What if the crazy bitch was right? What if when she died you really did gain more of the power from our dark and evil queen?"
I shook my head. "I didn't feel any different, and I did feel different when the mother and the Lover of Death died."
"You'd just used necromancy to control thousands of ghosts. Would you have felt the rush of more power in all that?" she asked.
It was a good question, a smart question. It was the kind of thinking that had made us keep the two of them around. I looked at Micah and Nicky, who were still standing the closest to me in the hallway. "What do you think?"
"I think it's something we should talk over with Jean-Claude," Micah said.
"Yeah," Nicky said.
"Are you saying that Anita's lioness created a real male lion inside her?" Nathaniel asked.
"No," Rodina said, "I think the lioness created a thought, or a message for Anita."
I nodded. "She wants a mate. She wants me to find a male lion to be my animal to call. She's tired of waiting, or she feels the need of backup, or something."
"I felt it when the male roared inside Anita. I felt it like a punch almost," Nicky said.
"Is that typical when another male roars at you?" Micah asked.
"No, I'm the Rex of our pride; no one has that kind of power here."
"Anita does," Rodina said.
"Not as a lion, she doesn't," Nicky said.
"But she's not just a werelion," Ru said. "She's our evil queen reborn, or reimagined."
Rodina nodded. "Our evil queen had enough power to back down any of the cats, large or small."
"I really wish you would stop saying evil queen every time, and just say queen."
Rodina gave me a smile that was part joy and part evil, the kind of smile that her brother had on his face when he fed me Domino's blood. I fought not to shiver but failed. She knew that she creeped me out sometimes. She enjoyed it.
"But, Anita," she said in a sweet voice, "we don't want a fair and just queen to follow. We of the Harlequin want our motherfucking evil queen back."
"I am not your girl, then."
"Oh, Anita, don't be modest. I've seen you drain the life out of one of the Selkies until he was just a dried, screaming husk. That's not white magic, my queen."
"I was out of options to save our lives," I said.
"And you were ruthless enough to use black magic."